Wednesday, June 27, 2012

RAAM 2012

The Pier at Oceanside, CA, the Start of RAAM
This was the 30th running of the Race Across America (RAAM), except the first year, 1982, it was called The Great American Bike Race. That was the year that Lon Haldeman, John Howard, John Marino, and Michael Shermer lined up in Santa Monica and raced to NYC. Since that first year it has started in Oceanside, CA and finished, most years, in Annapolis, MD; a few years it finished in Atlantic City, NJ.

The 2012 “running” of RAAM saw: 4 solo women and 41 solo men dip their rear wheels in the Pacific and ride east. 8d-6h-29m later Reto Schoch from Switzerland would dip his front wheel into the Atlantic winning the men’s solo division. Just a little more than two days later, at 10d-13h-59m later Trix Zgraggen, also from Switzerland, would win the women’s solo division; both set speed records. 

Three of the four women and 25 of the 41 men would complete the race within the 12-day time limit. 
There is also a Team Division with 2, 4, and 8-person categories with a total of 49 teams. 48 of the 49 teams would finish; three teams deserve an extra-special note: 
  • an 8-person team, Team ViaSat, finished in 5d-5h-5m setting a new speed record of 23.93 mph
  • an 8-person team, Believe and Achieve, the youngest team ever to race with an average age of 16.5, finished in 6d-6h-31m average speed, 19.89 
  • a 4-person team, Forever Young Grand PAC Masters with an average age of 79 finished in    9d-7h-11m with an average speed of 13.41
It’s hard to know where to stop talking about the notables because just making it to the starting line is, by definition, remarkable. But John and Nancy Guth must be mentioned, a couple with a combined age of >60 who finished in 8d-3h-43m; the two Bacchetta (recumbent) 4-person Teams, and the 4 teams comprised of wounded veterans, several on hand-cycles from the USA and the UK. 

The numbers are actually quite staggering when you think that there are 300+ riders, crew, and officials out there on 3,000 miles of road over a 12 day period all because the challenge is there. There is no prize money, no endorsements, no talk shows, not even a mention on any national news; and yet they ride and their crews support their riders with only 2-4 hours of sleep in each 24 hour period, no showers, and nothing to eat but fast food.

Some have said riders go to this “extreme” (RAAM) because they are running away from something, maybe their demons. I totally, totally disagree. I believe riders choose RAAM because a) they are phenomenal athletes, and b) because they know their demons well (we all have them, you know) and they’ve made friends with them. They’re okay with their demons coming along for the ride, and they will do just that, come along for the ride. (RAAM is at least 60% mental and 40% physical.) RAAM will try to break you, and if it does, the demons will laugh with glee. It is one of the crew’s many jobs to help their rider get back on the bike and keep pedaling when the demons wrestle with their rider’s soul and sink their feet in cement. 

So, RAAM Headquarters (HDQ) what is it? Why is it in Tucson? Let’s start with the second question, Why Tucson? It hasn’t always been here in Tucson. I know it had been at the Finish Line for a number of years and in Boulder a few years. Not sure why it left those other places, but I sure am glad it’s in Tucson, since that’s where I live. 

Headquarters uses a conference room at Perimeter Bicycling, the organization that hosts the well known El Tour de Tucson each November as well as several other notable events. Barbara Franklin manages RAAM Headquarters. It is her systems that she has fine tuned over her last 30 years of RAAM service that we use. She hires and trains all of us willing workers as well as trains and issues on-the-route assignments for national and regional Officials who are roving the course. Her knowledge of this race is as deep, comprehensive, fair, wise, and joyful as any you will find. 

HDQ can have 5 incoming calls at once or be so quiet you can get in some good time on Angry Birds. Whose calling and why?? Well, there are 54 Time Stations each about 50 miles apart. Time Station 1 (TS 1) is in Lake Henshaw, CA; TS 54 is in Annapolis. The finish line is TS 55. Each time a rider passes a TS, a crew member must call HDQ and report their rider’s arrival time. 49 teams x 54 Time Stations = 2,646 TS call ins. That’s a lot of calls.

HDQ is staffed with a Manager and 3 willing workers 24/7 for RAAM’s duration; two of us are dedicated to lines ready to receive those 2,646 TS calls.  The 3rd willing worker deals with Info calls most of which are about riders who are going off their bike for a sleep break (usually as little as 15 min or as many as 4 hrs) or getting back on the bike after a sleep break. 

All these calls, Info and TS, are systematically recorded into a 3-ring paper binder. RAAM time is east coast time, so all entires are recorded accordingly. Then, all TS calls are recorded into the computer which updates the Leaderboard on the RAAM Homepage. 

Each rider or team of riders has a color coded push pin with their number on it. After entering their data in the computer their push pin is advanced along the route to their current TS on about a 15' map of the US. In a glance you can see where all the riders are, who's leading and who’s trailing. It also gives the manager on duty a visual to know where to advance the on-the-route officials. 
Rider/Team Push-pins early in the race
Finally, the TS data the rider’s crew just called in will be entered on a 10' wide spread sheet. So in a glance we know where each rider is per map and per spread sheet. If the rider is down for a sleep break, the spread sheet will so indicate with a colored stickie which will be removed when the rider gets back on the bike. 
The Spreadsheet

Crew will call in to tell us about tornados, stopped trains impeding their forward progress, riders who have fallen off their bikes, and all manner of what I call “road fabric”. They are hoping HDQ will give them a time credit for all these road fabric impedances. But alas, 99% of the time the Manager’s response is: “This is RAAM”, deal with it. 

I love having this top side view of the race, but it’s hard to get a rich sense of the agony or the ecstasy that's going on out there. The crew calls in the data and that's all they want to say and all they want to hear from us is their confirmation number which they covet like air. It is their documented proof they were at a TS. When someone volunteered one night that all the cows in California were taking a dump at the same time, I was thrilled. It gave me a sense of road life. Add to this that for most of the crew (and riders) English is not their first language. So dealing with accents, theirs and ours, often lots of HDQ background noise (often 4 HDQ staff are talking on the phones at once), and crew member fatigue, it is not a chatty time. 

Let’s hear it though for Facebook and Twitter for road fabric updates from the teams themselves as well as from the 3  RAAM media vans covering the race. There were a few times when I'd learn about road happenings via FB before the call came into HDQ like one of the crew vehicles hitting a dead brown bear that was in the middle of the road when they were traveling at speed. 

There were 8-10 Did Not Finishes (DNF’s) in the first 800-1,000 miles of the race. The reason given for DNF-ing was most frequently medical (dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, respiratory issues) and exhaustion. The desert was exceptionally hot this year and after the Mojave came the AZ mountains. The heat, exhaustion, and inexperience with something as big as RAAM ground them to a halt. All that it takes training wise, emotionally, relationally, and financially just to get to the start is staggering. To grind to a halt at TS 8, or thereabouts, is devastating for the rider and the crew. 

There are three time cut-offs that all riders and teams must make in order for them to be allowed to continue to race: Durango, CO, the Mississippi River, and Mt. Airy, MD. This year all 18 DNF’s happened at or before Durango. A number of riders were “on the bubble” as they approached the Mississippi and Mt Airy. However, their crews were given the “bubble” information early enough that they were able to make adjustments in their race strategy with their rider. In the end EVERYONE who made it past Durango made it on to the City Dock in Annapolis.

Racer's Blue Finish Slips on the Map

All the push-pins nestled in Annapolis

It was amazing to all of us in HDQ how grateful and thoughtful the crews were to us when they called in--thanking us for being there for them, wishing US a good evening, and expressing a desire to finally meet us at the finish line. More than anything we wanted to be there at the finish line to cheer and hug these amazing crew and riders we had talked to for 12 days. Most never even knew we were in Tucson, not Annapolis, and that they would never meet us.

Would I do it again, work in HDQ? A resounding yes.