By Chris Ragsdale
Here I am 11 days after having gotten off the bike from Solo RAAM 2013. Approximately the same amount of time it took me to finish the race. It hit me in the shower that finally I feel ready to sit and tell my story. I’ve been contemplating it for a week now. You know work, family, downtime, chores, I’m still processing obviously. A lot can happen in 11 days and it often does. This was my first time doing RAAM. I have done a lot of Ultra distance racing, a couple dozen events lasting 24 hours or more. When asked about those events people would say, what is it like out there? or What do you think about? or How do you feel? I would say well it’s crazy I go through all kinds of feelings. That’s the great thing about an Ultra race. You’re out there so long that you have enough time to feel every way. I go through anxiety, fear, stress, I feel excited, aggressive, angry, peaceful, fulfilled, supported, passive, and lost. Most of those things and more run through my thoughts during almost all of my races. This race is the equivalent of doing 10 in a row.
RAAM is 3,000 miles and the clock never stops. The route this year went from Oceanside California to Annapolis Maryland; we left on June 11 at noon. Well, my start time was 12:53–we went off on a time trial start process. So we each were brought up individually, names called out so the crews and locals that were watching could put a face to the name. I had been standing in the ocean a couple hours earlier with my friend and crew member Matt. Now i’m standing at the start line of what would be the biggest event i’m likely to ever take on. I was thinking about how grateful I was to be there. Standing there I was present to how fortunate I was for having gotten to this point. The race is a Big Deal to the minority who know about it. I’ve been aware of it for more then 10 years. Had all kinds of thoughts about it, everyone has their own. It’s amazing, crazy, inspiring, even impossible. For me it’s a process. One that was about to go into its next phase. I had decided shortly after PBP in 2011 that I thought I wanted to give it a go, that finally I was ready. Over the next 2 years I organized, planned, and had to raise enough money to make it happen. RAAM costs a lot of money. We need crew people and resources to do it. Standard protocol is to feed and shelter the people who have so generously volunteered to take 2 plus weeks of their life off to help. I decided on a small crew to keep expenses and drama to a minimum. For a 6 person 2 van crew we estimated our budget to be $25,000. Sounded like a lot to me, I kept looking at our spreadsheet trying to find ways to pinch here and there.. By May and some small miracle we had managed to raise enough. I had also managed to land some sponsors. Getting sponsorship is a difficult process. This is a small niche sport and financial times are tight. Fortunately companies started to come forward: Redpoint Coaching stepped up as Tittle sponsor, Volagi bikes, Assos, McHale Performance and Byrne thermal, and Dumonde tech, and other companies had been helping me already like Seattle Performance Medicine and Olson’s. While I did have some companies pitching in, a lot of the money that came in was from friends and supporters. I asked for money to help make this event happen. I simply could not afford to do it otherwise and more then 100 different people donated, that is inspiring. Some donated multiple times. Looking back through the list now I see how these people have come from all walks of life, many of which have nothing in common with one another. They are my riding friends, people from work, neighbors, strangers, people I knew growing up, and some people I barely know at all. They made it possible for me to stand at the start line, and I am eternally grateful for it. Gathered around the start line I find myself more relaxed then I had thought. People were huddled around racers in small clusters and the locals were lining the start to see what this was all about. I had anticipated more people, a bigger stage. Entering the start area I was more focused on the clock than the people, soon there was no more thinking, planning, or preparing, only the doing. When the clock starts there are no do overs, no time outs, what ever happens happens.
Led by a tandem and followed by Micky Dymond with a camera strapped to his chest I take off. There is a neutral stretch down the trail until we can really race. We chat, I don’t remember about what but it’s pleasant and I notice the slight tail wind. Then I’m off alone for now, I will see the crew about an hour into the race for the first time. It’s business as usual, the legs never hold me back early in a race, I can hardly tell they are there. I push till the breath is noticeable and focus on it. I told myself this race I wouldn’t let the breathing get heavy early. A lot of racers use power meters, some still watch the heart rate. I have always used the breath, legs and head. Early on I focus on the breathing. Usually I keep it heavy but controlled early in the race. This race I would keep it out of the heavy zone, keep the breathing noticeable but not heavy. This method is good for the first few hours, eventually the limitation becomes the legs. I focus on keeping heavy pressure in the legs. Only letting up to relieve the back and feet. Heavy pressure through the pedals, that is the pace. After a few hundred miles the mind wonders. My pace is eventually driven by the amount of concentration I muster up. How focused on the moment I can stay. Thoughts and feelings coming and going constantly distracting my body from doing more damage. Focus, stay in the moment, make a difference here, make a difference now, re commit, re focus, a little more, right here, right now. I caught maybe a dozen of the RAW racers before I got to the crew. The Race Across the West racers start just before us but stop in Durango. It got hot much sooner then I thought, only a couple hours in and it becomes the focus of my thoughts. Climbing Mt Palomar I get passed for the first time. Reto, last year’s winner, comes past me on the climb at close to twice my speed. He smiles and I wave. I continue to look over my shoulder. This year is supposed to be an epic battle. 3 past winners are all here and a handful of guys who have seen the podium before are chasing them. Lots has been talked about with regard to my being here. Americans haven’t gotten a win here in a long time. I’m here to do my thing, my best, for me. When the sponsors, friends, and media crews are all gone and I’m in my darkest hour, that’s what will matter. More than 30 minutes go by from when Reto passed me and finally Wyss from Switzerland comes by, about as long again and Strasser goes by. It’s a long race but I thought they would be closer.
In the desert the first evening, the crews change and I change bikes.Terry, Louise, and Matt had started with me and they would now hand the follow van over to Bob, Mike, and Sol. I hop on the other Volagi. I had one set up close to stock with the disc brakes and lighter wheels and another set up with traditional wheels, both had clip on aero bars. I went from the climbing bike to the more TT set up with aero wheels. It’s dark now but it’s also over 100 degrees. We haven’t been racing long but it feels hard. I get a leg cramp, that’s odd, I never cramp, keep going. The first night feels noisy, lots of racers, lots of crews, lots of questions. I continue to feel things out. During the night we have to stop for gas and while doing so Mike accidentally steps on a giant toad. We continue on, racers are strung out like climbers on a mountain. Lights shining and evenly spaced this is a non drafting event so we are spread out long. We have to stop again I’m not sure for what, I’m only focused on how far the other lights must have gone. I chased for 2 hours to find that when I caught them the lights were now out. The sun was rising and gaps had grown. Soon I would have my first radio interview.
I had gotten hooked up with Cardo radio systems. It’s a small device that goes on the back of my helmet and has a small ear and mic piece that I can talk into. It is wireless to my phone and can be paired with another unit worn by a crew member in the van. It allows me to talk hands free to who ever is wearing one in the van or talk blue tooth through my phone to anyone anywhere. So when I was asked to do interviews during RAAM I said sure. My home town radio wanted to do a daily interview and so did George Thomas with OTTP radio. I spaced them out by a couple hours and had them both in the morning. The first was at 7am EST, the second was at 10am MST. All race communications were to be done in Official time which was EST regardless of the time zone we were currently in, we would go through 4 time zones. Try figuring it out with no sleep.
The first morning was fun, changed clothes on the side of the road and got ready for my first full day’s work. I would see my old friend Alan who had moved to Arizona. I told him I would be to Congress about 24 hours in. He met me on the road before I got there. He had crewed before and he knew the drill. We hugged and smiled and I rode on. Congress time station had a pool, I wasn’t going to pass it up. There were other racers there I think, did I mention the pool. Shoes on and more food in the belly, I took off and up the Yarnell grade. For a moment at the intersection they had recently repaved the road and the Garmin read 126? Moments later it read the usual 110. I felt great on the climbs out of Congress, I passed riders, and enjoyed the beautiful scenery, there was pain but I don’t remember it. Pain is a funny thing, It means different things to different people and it shows up in different ways on different days. Most try and avoid it, some seek it out. I usually make it present and then just acknowledge it, seek to understand it. Where is it coming from? and what is it capable of? If I ignore it, it will get bored and go some where else, maybe my feet or hands. It’s like a game of chicken. It can’t possibly stay there forever, It will run and hide.
It gets dark again, we are in the mountains still. I’m getting tired, we had planned for our first stop about 40 hours in. It was just less than that when I stopped, 90 minutes sleep in the van, time to go again. We go through a large college town late at night, I’m sure we are lost. Soon another crew exchange. At the crew exchanges I started binge eating. While riding I was constantly eating, at least as much as I could. But when we would stop to swap crews as a way to distract me from the ordeal they would give me gigantic piles of food. I think they thought I wouldn’t notice they were swapping if I was distracted enough. And so it went, town after town, bottle after bottle. I would ride to the next crew exchange. That is where the best food was. For the longest time the plates of food would come every 12 hours. Eventually I had to wait 15 hours until the good food. I was told by one RAAM vet that it was more like an eating competition than a bicycle race. I think he was right, It’s a good thing I have a good gut. Never a single issue with the belly and proud of it! My mouth however fought back, sores and achy teeth another new experience.
After the first sleep we found a routine. 22 hours on, 2 hours off, pretty much. Sometimes I was slow getting out of the van. Sometimes I would sit a little extra at a clothes change. In eastern Colorado on day 4 I stopped for a shower. I know quite a few RAAM vets and I made a point to talk to most if not all of them before taking this on. I would ask them everything, some would have tons of advice others much less. One thing was common: Stay On the Bike. Hmmm just noticed that’s SOB. The clock never stops, 0 mph is tough to make up for. So I worked through things, I mentioned the pain thing already. It showed up in the feet and then cramping, then the heat would mute it all. It showed up in the knees and quads. There were times when I had to push my leg down with my hand in order to keep things turning, it happened a lot. The crew was great, they would work so hard to find solutions for me. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t. Get to Annapolis SOB
America is big, and the weather changes, those things I knew. But if you never go inside, the conditions feel erratic, it changes so quickly. The reality of that has never been more clear. In 10 days I experienced teeth chattering cold to the point I could barely keep my bike straight and heat that hurt my nose and throat to breathe in. The heat radiating off the ground cooked my knees like potatoes in tin foil. I felt the sand ripping at my skin and eyes in a sandstorm in Utah. I experienced the fury of the storms over Kansas. And felt the calm cooling rains that reminded me of home.
The people, one of the reasons this race is so amazing is the people. At only 11 days after the race I am forgetting where the pain was? and when? I’m forgetting what I was frustrated about and where we had issues. I don’t remember which State was on what day. Or what the height was at the top of the hill. I do remember the guy in Ohio driving past me honking and then rushing into a parking lot and running from his car to the street with 2 small signs that read GO CHRIS. I remember standing outside a hotel with a man who wanted his picture with me, he kept asking questions and I could see the inspiration in his eye. Coming over the top of the climb in Indiana after having experienced a LOW and having a rider introduce himself as Jim Rosa. We had met years ago at the National 24 hr and he had been tracking me and drove down to support. Jim rode his bike up the climb and then turned around when he saw me coming. We rode down together and he wished me well and mentioned riding together years ago. He had put signs on the side of the road on the descent. Chris is #1, Top American, Go Chris etc. I remember the Crew. All of them doing everything they could to help me get to Annapolis. Crewing is tough, I have done it, but never on this scale. It takes a lot of patience and commitment. We were going painfully slow from one side of the continent to the other and they kept with me. It has been 11 days since I finished and it took about that long for me to get it done. That feels like such a long time now and I know it was for them. They were driving and shopping and prepping food and bottles, taking pictures and logging spreadsheets for days and days and days on very little sleep. It was crazy hot and that Van stunk like hell. That’s how committed the Crew was and needed to be for me to get to Annapolis. I can’t thank them enough. The final days were dominated by the thoughts of seeing my family. They were at the finish line day’s before me, never before have I experienced time in this way. The beauty of the land around me and the caring support of the crew next to me were a muted back ground to the vision of being with my wife and kids again. It was all that mattered but I needed to take the slowest and most painful way to experience that vision. It had to be done that way and it was torturous and unlike anything I have experienced. I felt isolated and alone, there was nothing anyone else could do. The only thing that made a difference was the rotating speed of the wheels beneath me. And it felt as if there was tar in my hubs. I simply couldn’t go as fast as I needed to, the last days would take an eternity. Since finishing the race I have dreamed about it almost every night. Some times waking in the middle of the night ” did I finish? did I make it?” Are they nightmares or just reminders?
Mesmerized by the people and the process of RAAM at some point my race became more about survival. It was focused entirely on managing my process in a way that would have me Finishing in Annapolis. Strasser the Austrian had distanced himself from the field by the largest margin ever. He would go on to redefine what is humanly possible, crossing the country faster then it had ever been done. If we pay close attention, things like that can impact all of us. I like records, they set a frame work. Often when looking into an Ultra race I will look at the record books. That is the frame work for possibility. It is the measuring stick upon which I judge my potential. I’ll go on to train, plan, and visualize according to the best case scenario. I like that process, I feel inspired, motivated. I’ve been fortunate over the years to have created some records. On this occasion I was much closer to the back of the race then I was the front. But my process was the same. Dream big, do what I can in the here and now, focus my energy, believe, my thoughts and feelings matter but the only thing that makes a difference is what I do about it. The crew and I made it to Annapolis 10 days 23 hours and 20 minutes after taking off from Oceanside. Official finishers of the solo Race Across America.