I took off fast after the long neutral section and got caught up in all the excitement of passing people and trying to make it through the desert as quickly as possible. I stayed well below my lactic threshold power, but perhaps this was the beginning of my battle with heat exhaustion. That battle would play out the next day, but first during the middle of the night I crashed in the uneven lanes construction zone between Blythe, California and Parker, Arizona. My front wheel caught on the rise between the lanes and went right out from under me. I hit my head hard and slid on my face and left shoulder.
After a quick check of everything on my bike and my body, I was up and riding again. Heading into Parker, Arizona Rob White caught up with me, and we rode together for a few minutes as the sun came up and the temp started to rise (very quickly). I was struggling and told him to go on. The temperature just kept on rising and rising. It was unbelievable. I stopped at a bar/lodge that was open at 9AM to use the bathroom and change kits. It was already 100 degF outside when Kristine took the picture below:
After another hour or so struggling in the heat, I knew I needed to get out of the heat. Our RV air conditioner could only keep the temp at 20 degrees below the outside air temperature. So it was still 90+ degF in the RV. Fortunately, in Hope, Arizona there was a gas station with good air conditioning. We setup a small cot in the corner of the store, and I slept there for a couple hours. I was off the bike for about 4.5 hours before continuing.
It was about 3 in the afternoon when I left thinking how on earth would I even make it anywhere in the absolute hottest part of the day. But right at the time I was leaving, my friend Erik Newsholme from Atlanta, Georgia rolled up to the stop sign at the intersection where the gas station was. Surprised to see each other, we rolled off together (RAAM racers are allowed to ride together for 15 minutes a day). We ended up passing each other a couple times when one of us would stop to cool off on the side of the road.
When I finally made it to Congress, I knew that I should be done for the day so I decided to sleep for an hour and a half even though I had already slept for a few hours back in the gas station in Hope. This turned out to be a good decision because when I woke up I absolutely flew up the Yarnell grade. I had some of my best riding all through the night, climbing without a jersey on even though it was only in the 60s. The cool air felt great after being so hot all day.
By the time I made it to Cottonwood, I was so pumped about the race that the heat exhaustion of the day before seemed like a distant memory. We were treated to some hot air balloons over the course on the way into Prescott, followed by a beautiful climb through Oak Creek Canyon up to Flagstaff. By the time we had made it to Flagstaff, it was crazy hot again in the mid 90s which was close to record setting heat for Flagstaff.
Following Flagstaff was a long tailwind descent, down, down, down into the heat of the desert. I was struggling again by early afternoon and took an extended break at the Tuba City time station. We decided it would be best to make it one more time station, but I think this was a mistake as it was so hot and I was riding very slowly. I only made it halfway to the next time station before deciding I needed to sleep. After sleeping, the sun was about to set and it was substantially cooler.
This motivated me to ride hard, but there was road construction in several sections and rough roads as we entered Monument Valley. It was the middle of the night so all I remember from Monument Valley was rough road, cold temps, and sleep deprivation. I stopped once to sleep for a few minutes in the van and was completely refreshed when I restarted. The stars were incredible with the Milky Way galaxy clearly visible. By sunrise, I was happy to have made it to Colorado, but the road was again pretty rough and I was pretty low on motivation.
One thing that kept me going through here was reminiscing about a summer 16 years ago when I was driving from California to Texas, and I ended up on the same road that the RAAM course used to get to Cortez. I biked at some really cool trails that had cliff dwelling ruins. I used this to lift my spirits, despite the fact that I was riding uphill into the wind on rough roads for a long time. By the end, the road had turned to dirt/gravel and it was really rough. The time station in Cortez, though, really lifted my spirits as I looked forward to the section of Hwy 160 with its long climbs, beautiful views, and long descents.
The climbing through the Rocky Mountains between Cortez and Durango was fantastic. During this time, I finally caught back up to Seana Hogan (6-time solo winner, going for the 50+ female time record this year) who had passed me while I was struggling with the heat in Hope. Also, I caught up to Norman Hageman, who ended up being the only 50-59 year old finisher this year. He was struggling with staying awake when I caught him so I left him when he had to stop to take a short break. It’s amazing how at that moment I was wide awake and yet a few hours later I would also be struggling with the staying awake.
Descending down into Durango was great, but climbing out of Durango was torture as it was really, really hot again with no shade. I made it to a pawn shop in Bayfield and pulled into the parking lot because there was some shade. Luke setup a chair for me in the shade, and the owners came out and asked us to come inside as it was much cooler. I sat at the front desk with a fan pointed on me and tried to cool off for a few minutes. We decided to switch shoes to mountain bike shoes and pedals through here after having already cut holes in my road shoes for my expanding feet.
Leaving the pawn shop, I was flying again through Pagosa Springs heading to Wolf Creek pass, the highest point in the race. I started out strong trying to ride up the climb as far as possible in my big chainring. Eventually, I started to slow down and get really sleepy. I took two sleep breaks on the way up, but eventually made it up and over. I flew down the other side hitting 50mph several times before the descent started to flatten out a bit. It was still enough of a descent to stay in the mid 30s, but I was struggling with staying awake by the very bottom. I slept at the South Fork time station for a full 3 hours.
The next day was probably the most scenic of the race with amazing vistas climbing up the passes of Sangre de Cristo and La Veta. Leaving the mountains behind, we first passed through Trinidad, Colorado which Kristine and I recognized simultaneously as the town where we had dinner on the way to race the Leadville mountain bike race. Kristine had dropped me off in Raton, New Mexico and I had ridden my mountain bike up and over the pass to Trinidad where we ended up at this cool restaurant with singing waiters and waitresses.
East of Trinidad, the wind really started to pick up. It was a strong headwind, and after Mike Olheiser messaged me and encouraged me to switch to his old TT bike, I decided to give it a try, and I was immediately flying. Here’s a video Kristine got of me racing and dropping a hawk that was flying beside us for a long time.
I rode all the way to the next time station at Kim, Colorado with Fatboy (Per Kyed Laursen) catching and passing me while I stopped for a kit change. I figured I could catch him again afterwards, but he was flying and his follow vehicle lights disappeared into the distance as I struggled with staying awake. Eventually, I made it to the next time station in Walsh, Colorado where I gave up trying to make it to Kansas before sleeping.
The next morning I woke up and headed off to Kansas right around sunrise. There was an AWESOME tailwind initially which blew me forward through the next time station at Ulysses, Kansas but as I approached Greensburg, Kansas the wind had definitely shifted around from the south and was a super strong crosswind. The temperature was still pretty hot, but the wind had a pretty good cooling effect since there was a bit more humidity in the air.
I had originally planned to try do all of Kansas in one day, but by the time I made it to Eureka I was again done for the day. Still, it was a good 350+ mile day in just over 24 hours. Waking up from a short sleep in Eureka, I started riding mid-morning and after a few hours made it to Missouri where the terrain suddenly got hilly again. It was awesome, and I loved riding on US-54. I hopped in the pool at the Camdenton time station before taking an hour and a half sleep. I only covered 207 miles this day, but it was also only 14 hours of riding. I had another short day the next day to bring my total up over 400 miles of riding in about 28 hours.
These days together took me all the way to Alahambra, Illinois. I was going to try to make it to the next time station, but after only a couple miles of riding and falling asleep. I decided to hop in the van and head back to the previous time station where the RV was still parked. I slept there for an hour and a half, woke up, and was shuttled back to the the side road where I had stopped riding earlier.
Re-energized, I nearly made it all the way across the rest of Illinois and Indiana the next day but fell just a bit short again fighting sleep. Indiana was awesome with fast rolling hills and deep valleys especially in the Bloomington – Nashville area. It was super significant to me when I made it to I-65 which runs right by my house (albeit many hundreds of miles farther south in Alabama) as we drive this stretch of I-65 whenever we visit Kristine’s family in northern Indiana and Wisconsin.
This is where the race really started to get interesting. Adam Bickett, who had been mixing it up with the leaders all the way until he had altitude sickness in Colorado and was laid up for more than a day, was starting to make up ground on all of us who had passed him. Additionally, Matt Hoffman was closing in on me. Fatboy was still quite a bit ahead and was close to catching Rob White. Adam passed me as we got hammered by a thunderstorm downpour in Chillicothe. I caught back up to him and passed him again, but I ended up breaking my front derailleur and opted to sleep for 45 minutes while my crew put on a replacement derailleur. I was many miles behind Adam when I woke up, but I was able to catch and pass him in the middle of the night on US-50 while he was sleeping. Shortly afterwards, though, I had to sleep and so he caught and passed me again and was miles ahead by the time I started riding a couple hours later.
— Race Across America (@RAAMRaces) June 27, 2015
I woke up feeling really strong and pushed the pace super hard on all the West Virginia climbs, which were awesome. I caught Adam shortly before the Maryland state line and continued to close the gap on Fatboy. I passed Fatboy in Pennsylvania as he was stopped, but he was just getting ready to start riding again and he quickly caught and passed me again. Adam was falling behind during this time as I was pushing the pace really hard. I started struggling with sleep again, and Fatboy repassed me and started putting distance into me when I decided to sleep for 15 minutes before Gettysburg, 5 minutes in Gettysburg, and then 30 minutes after Gettysburg. During this time, Fatboy had extended his lead from a few miles well up over 20 miles over me and caught and passed Rob White. When I woke up, I saw that Adam had closed the gap that I had opened up before sleeping to just a couple miles. This lit a fire under me, and I started riding as hard as I could fully awake with all the adrenaline of getting chased down by Adam and still hoping to catch Fatboy before the end.
Meanwhile, I was wondering what was happening to Rob White who had ridden away from me 2700 miles earlier in the desert at the California / Arizona border. Fatboy had caught and passed him, and I was closing in fast. I would learn after the race that Rob had fallen asleep while riding and broken his collarbone. He continued on, despite tremendous pain, and finished the last 200+ miles with that broken collarbone. Tough man award of the race definitely goes to Rob!!!
I kept pushing and pushing the pace eventually closing the gap to Fatboy to just a few miles, but by then it was too late. I made it across the finish line about 20 minutes after him and had a chance to chat with him as we waited at the Shell station outside of Annapolis for the escort to the finish (non-timed portion of the race). By now, it was pouring down rain and cold and it just made the race seem that much more epic – having battled so hard at the end to try to move up to 6th place, but falling just one place short.
RAAM is a story of battles. I had my own battles – crashing on day one, heat exhaustion, and sleep deprivation. But this was small compared to other battles – Rob with his broken collarbone, Adam with pulmonary edema (altitude sickness), and even returning champion Christoph Strausser bowing out with a lung infection. These are just a few of the battles that I know about, but I am sure there were many more. Even though I didn’t meet my time goals or get the result I was hoping for, I feel satisfied that I gave it everything I had just as everyone else who raced and finished or raced and had to call it quits gave it their everything. That is what makes us feel truly alive, knowing that you are pouring out everything into something, not holding anything back, and experiencing the adventure of a lifetime along the way.