Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My Report as a Race Across America Regional Official

For the past five years, I have had the honor of working for Race Across America (RAAM)  in a variety of capacities, most recently as a regional official the last two years.  While my role in this amazing event is small, I am exceptionally enthusiastic to be able to assist as these riders engage in such a daunting and, in many cases, heroic pursuit.

RAAM logo
 
RAAM was born out of the Great American Bike Race organized by John Marino in 1982. Since 2008, the route has only had a few variations, though its average length is 3000 miles.  Since then, every June, over 100 riders depart from Oceanside, California and head for Annapolis, Maryland.  The race is open to men and women, and they may ride solo or in teams of 2, 4, or 8 (relay style).  Most riders have one-three support vehicles with them that follow as they trek along the country.  The men and women in these cars and RVs serve quite a few roles—ranging from mechanics to chef, to moral supporter to navigator. 

Solo riders generally start first, then, a few days later, the teams begin.  The riders set their own pace and determine when (and if) they stop to rest, eat, etc.  Along the route, there are time stations. Riders or crew members must call in to RAAM Headquarters within a half hour so that HQ can track the riders’ progression across the country.  This year, there were 55 time stations, including the finish and end.  Usually, time stations are near restaurants and/or gas stations so that riders and crew members can restock as necessary while reporting in. Frequently, the time stations are also where the riders sleep.

The route is quite hard, including passing through many steep climbs and mountains as well as long, twisting plains.  As the race is held in June, riders must deal with all kinds of weather—cool nights, excruciating heat in the days, pouring rain, humidity.  And yet, on they ride.  Due to the riders setting their own pace as well as the use of country roads, it is a difficult event for spectators to come watch.  So, often, riders will ride for miles and miles with no one other than their crews to support them.  This alone is a unique psychological challenge of the race.  Those few time stations that are “manned” are often the morale boost the riders need.  These stations are ones in which people who live in (or near) a designated time station decide to set up tents, signs, food, drinks, chairs, and, in one notable case, pools, for riders to relax at more comfortably.  More importantly, the people who staff these stations also cheer, clap, and ring cowbells as the riders go by.  This alone can often make the difference for a rider considering giving up—having just one person—one stranger—standing on the side of the road, cheering them on can give the riders just a little more encouragement.  It would be amazing if the route was lined with fans day and night and if all the time stations were staffed day and night by hundreds of people.  And maybe someday, as the race continues to gain exposure, this may happen.  But for now, the riders accept that this task they are embarking on is often highly personal and lonely.

And for what?  RAAM itself doesn’t award cash prizes. In a number of cases, riders or teams pay tens of thousands (taking into costs of gas, food, transportation to the start line, transportation from the start line, rental of support vehicles, etc.)  Plus, riders come from all over the world, so that adds an even greater expense. For most, the bragging rights of saying they finished the toughest race in the US is enough of a reward.  For many, charities are involved.  Riders find sponsors to cover the costs, then they raise awareness and, if possible, financial support for these charities or organizations.  And for others, it’s just for sheer love of the bike.

Since the course itself has changed a number of times, it is difficult to assign course “records,” but this year’s edition did have two big ones broken.  In the solo men’s division, Pete Penseyres set the fastest speed record in 1986, riding 3107 miles at 15.40mph average.  This year, Christoph Strasser finished the course in less than 8 days, maintaining an average speed of 15.68mph.  Seana Hogan has the record for females with13.23mph, though she was forced to abandon with respiratory issues this year.

Another major record broken this year was that of the 8-person team.  Allied Forces-Team 4Mil/Strategic Lions maintained an average speed of just over 24mph! But there are so many stories within the race beyond just those riders who win.  Maria Parker, for example, rode the course in honor of her sister who is suffering with terminal brain cancer. Parker’s goal was to use RAAM to help raise money for brain cancer research, so she jumped on her recumbent and set off.  Along the way, one of her support vehicles was in an accident that destroyed the van and two of her bikes.  She was allowed to continue, however, and despite the odds, she was the #1 female finisher this year.

Two teams were also interesting to me.  First, Captain America and the Honey Badger was one that I was initially intrigued in by the humor of the name.  However, I soon came to find that the riders belonged to an Illinois-based team that one of my old-time friends belongs to! This small world connection startled me and, when I met the riders of the team, startled them as well.  As the team was waiting in a parking lot to switch cars, I pulled alongside them, introduced myself, and we laughed at the connection.  Ultimately, they finished third in the 2-Man Team (Under 50) category.

The other team I was incredibly inspired by was the Walter Reed Bethesda Cycling Team.  This 8-Person Open group was made up of veterans of the Iraqi war, many suffering from various injuries—both psychological and physical.   This, however, did not damper their spirits.  When I spoke with them at Time Station 41, they were jovial and excited to be so far into the race.  Ultimately, they would go on to finish 6th in their category.

For full results and to learn more about the riders and the race, go to: http://www.ridefarther.com/.

So, how do I fit in? Well, as a regional official, I have two main tasks:  1)make sure riders and crew are following all the rules, particularly to ensure their safety, and 2)monitor their progression along the course so we can keep track of where everyone is. This year, RAAM used a new tracking device called “tractalis” that allowed for real-time updates on riders’ locations.  It wasn’t perfect, but as years progress tracking systems like this will continue to help keep tabs on the riders better.

So, briefly, here is a breakdown of my day-to-day activities:

I started my duties on Tuesday, June 18th.  I drove down to Oxford, Ohio (TS41) around 7 in the morning.  Just as I was arriving, Dani Wyss (who ultimately finished second in the Solo Male Under 50 category, was just passing through.  I stayed at this time station, catching up with some of my yearly RAAM friends, and waited until Gerhard Gulewicz arrived.  I then drove over to Greensburg, Indiana (TS40) and watched three more riders come through. After giving them a brief head start, I drove back to Oxford to monitor these riders and make sure they were safe and following the rules.  After arriving back at Oxford, I slept for a few hours.  Mind you, in all this driving, I record where I see riders along the route (ie, rider 408 was 4.8 miles east of TS 41 at 7:08AM).  Then, when I get to a time station, I call headquarters and report these recordings. With the use of the new tracking system, it’s not quite as important for me to keep these logs, but it helps when there’s a discrepancy or when the tracking system gets glitchy.  When I call headquarters (every time I arrive at a time station), I await my new assignment.  This year, communicating with HQ was even easier since we were able to text!

Wednesday, after sleeping in my car at TS41, I left Oxford and headed to Blanchester (TS42) at 6AM.  Last year, I was responsible for covering time stations 41-43, so I was fairly impressed that I still knew most of this route by memory.  Here, I was again able to catch up with old friends at the time station.  I watched two riders pass through safely, then drove back to Greensburg, passing Oxford, to monitor several more riders.  At TS40, I waited about 2 hours.  In this time, I had the honor to meet Martin Dressman, a crew member for Franz Preihs.  Martin and I have exchanged emails for years because he was one of the most active people involved with getting the Oxford and Blanchester time stations to be so successful.  So, it was great to finally put a name to a face! The next rider that was to pass by had stopped to sleep, so I used my break to sneak in a shower at a nearby truck stop (my goal this trip as opposed to last year was to do it as cheaply as possible, bypassing hotels).  Following my shower, I waited back at TS40 until around 21:30, then drove back to TS41.  When I arrived there, they told me of a potential issue with the course in that the main road leading into the time station may be under construction the next day (a week ahead of schedule).  So, the members of the time station and I brainstormed a possible solution which involved a very tiny re-route if necessary.  I then called Headquarters for approval of this plan which we received (although it proved unnecessary after all).  Once this approval was in place, I slept for a few hours.

Day three became super busy.  At 6:30AM I headed towards Blanchester, but about halfway there, headquarters asked me to return to Greensburg to check out a possible situation.  This required dedicating a lot of attention to a particular group as it moved to TS41.  When I arrived back in Oxford, I reported to HQ and two national officials what I saw.  Then, I waited at 41 for more riders to come through.  While here, I interviewed with the Oxford newspaper, teaching him the basics of how RAAM works and showing him the tracking system that 41 had projected on a huge television monitor.  Then, I drove back to Greensburg for four hours.  This time, however, a very kind and enthusiastic gentleman arrived to keep me company as well as to cheer on the riders.  He told me the history of the city as well.  If you’re ever in Greensburg, be sure to look at the tree growing out of the court house! This was also an incredibly warm day, with temperatures reaching the mid-80’s.  After the last big group passed through 40 at around 23:00, I headed back to Oxford, falling asleep around 1:30am.

By this point, I had completely lost track of what day of the week it was.  And this day proved the busiest of all.  By 6:30, I was already on my way to Blanchester, passing around a dozen riders en route.  Once they passed, the captains of the Blanchester Time Station invited me back to their house for a shower which was most-appreciated.  After this, I traveled on to Chillicothe (TS43).  Here, I waited with Maria Parker’s auxiliary crew for her arrival.  They were friendly and outgoing, sharing their adventures on the road with me.  After she passed, we cheered enthusiastically, then I headed back to Oxford, just driving past TS42.  This time, there were almost too many riders in between to log! Just as I arrived at Oxford, the Walter Reed team was departing.  I waited at 41 until Lisa Dougherty/Team Los Alamos Schools passed.  I then returned to Greensburg where, once again, the gentleman from the night before came to support the riders.  Here, we waited for three teams and the last solo rider to come through, trying to encourage the soloist to increase his speed so he wouldn’t miss the time-cut off for finishing.  I leap-frog followed these groups on to TS41.  When I arrived, the advanced auxiliary vehicle for the “Flying Frenchies” was waiting.  This crew was fun to talk to as their English was relatively limited so it gave me an opportunity to try out my rusty French.  It seemed mildly successful anyways.  When their team left, I followed them on to TS42 for the night.

My final day, I awoke early to discover that the groups remaining on the road behind me, I no longer needed to monitor, so instead, I moved forward to TS43.  Here, I waived “au revoir” to my final responsibility—making sure the Frenchies got through safely.  As of 8:30 Saturday morning, my week with RAAM 2013 was done.

Ever since manning the Chillicothe time station in 2008, RAAM has been one of the biggest events I look forward to each year.  It’s really hard to explain just how important to me this race is.  I play such a small role, really.  And by far, my role is considerably less taxing than the crew members, time station captains, and certainly the riders.  But just to be a part of such an important and huge race means the world to me.  I hope someday to play an even bigger part—whether as an official media crew member, crewing a team, helping headquarters, or serving as a national official. But for as long as I am able, I will be doing something for RAAM every year. 

 And don't worry: I took lots of pictures.  So, see my gallery at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/27006449@N06/sets/72157634314260804/

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