Episode 2: Pushing the Pedals till the wheels fall off
If I asked you without giving any prior information where you thought I might have woken up on my 40th Birthday, you would have been forgiven for taking a sensible guess: With your wife and daughter, them giving you breakfast in bed and lavishing you with gifts? Nope. On a family holiday in the sun? Don’t think so. Hungover from the previous nights party in your honour? Try again. Waking up in a king size bed, next to your friend Sam (of the male variety), with two other middle aged men camping on mattresses on the floor in the same room, with the prospect of riding your bike 3100miles across the USA in honour and in aid of all children in the UK fighting or living with a Cancer diagnosis? – Well, how ever did you guess? That’s exactly where I found myself on this particular 16th June.
I know, it’s seemed slightly bonkers to me at the time too, and my feelings were tinged with more than a little heartache as I realised I’d passed this life-landmark away from my beautiful wife, equally beautiful 3 year old daughter and the rest of my wonderful family. During a long shower I thought about the reasons why I was there, and I managed to balance everything somewhat in my mind. We had spent a year of our lives preparing for this day. We had trained 5 sometimes 6 days a week getting our cancer surviving bodies as ready as possible for what lie ahead. We had hustled, begged and negotiated enough supplies and funds to get this team across the pond to Oceanside, California, and we were ready to roll. I had a number of reasons to be there, and a number of reasons for wanting, needing and hoping I could do this. Obviously it was an epic challenge that I was hoping would mark my 40th with a big tick. I selfishly needed to prove to myself that I was still capable of doing things like this. My body has been a source of both pride and anger for me in equal parts basically since birth. Having spent early years in many hospitals in countries various, my teenage years were littered with operations and procedures, before my early twenties brought with it my own cancer diagnosis, surgery, chemo and radio-therapies (all of which needs its own book let alone a blog post but anyway), so needless to say, my desire to take on this monster of a race was like a personal vendetta against all of that.
But I was also acutely aware, that my own personal reasons, needed to play second fiddle to what we were really doing as we tried to be the first team of cancer survivors to complete the Race Across America, and that was, within this madness, to try and lift the
profile of our charity and raise vital funds to help us continue our work providing bikes and related equipment to children going through things that no child should ever have to face. That all 4 riders had been through similar experiences and the whole crew have had their lives touched by the evil that is cancer one way or another too, meant that this was going to be as much a journey of the spirit as it was the physical . I thought about all the children we have tried to do our small bit to help in the past, and I thought about the horrors that so many children would be going through at the same time as all I had to do was keep turning the pedals. It’s a cliche, but I knew that wherever I found myself riding, whatever the conditions, my stint would end, and our whole journey was only going to last a week while there would be children at home with no end in sight to their nightmare. I remembered Scarlett, an amazing young lady who I had met during the last phases of my preparation and training. She had lost and had reconstructed a large portion of the bones in her leg through bone cancer. With a bit of practice and some help she was pedalling a normal bike with just the help of a crank shortener in the sunshine. Her resilience and love for life was truly awe-inspiring, and an amazing coincidence that some summer grass or something must have got stuck in both her dad’s and my eyes just at the moment I watched here pedalling her new bike!
I stepped back out of the shower feeling a lot better, I had some final prep to do, a breakfast as big as I could possibly crowbar into my stomach to consume, and then it would be time to head for the start area. I was ready for this and whilst the pre-race nerves were still there, they were familiar to me from all those other start-lines I had stood on in the past. Bring it on.
One thing that I hadn’t expected and something that added another dimension to my birthday and to my experience of the RAAM start was a special delivery. A couple of days before the start I woke up very early to a text message, to find my older sister had realised how big a deal this race was both in general terms and in my life this year, and had bought a plane ticket to San-Diego! She would be arriving later that day. I have to be honest, having the pocket rocket there that has known me longer than every other person on the planet was brilliant. I had initially worried that it could have meant another thing to deal with on top of everything else that we were trying to get ready, but in reality it was really nice to have her there and almost felt like because a part of my family were there that brought them all closer to me as I prepared to roll out of town.
Anyway, back to the morning of the start. A huge bowl of porridge later, complete with raisins, honey, bananas and peanut butter, and it was time to hit the road. We drove to Oceanside in convoy. As I sat there in the passenger seat, Sam driving the gangsta-wagon, I was filled with pride that we had got this far. We had a convoy of 5 vehicles. 4 Riders with their support crews that were going to be with us and help us ride across an entire continent in the space of a week. A truck full of one of the best film-making crews out there (I still don’t understand half of the conversations those guys have, but I know it’s going to be a brilliantly visual and thoughtful film when it’s finished, I only hope the guys have found in us a story worthy of their expertise and of immortalising in celluloid (or in pixels as is the case now, or 30+ Terrabytes of audio and video content as I’ve been told since!).
On arrival by the pier in Oceanside, the atmosphere was really building. Loads of team cars and riders, everyone with that slightly nervous but ultimately giddy, excited look on their faces. Some old, experienced racers who have probably been here half a dozen times before, and plenty of “rookies” like us. Away from the immediate vicinity of the pier however and we found a relatively quiet restaurant that was serving all the usual American breakfast staples, so it was time to pack in some more calories before we needed to head down to the holding area at the start. By this point I was also experiencing something that I knew was coming and happens before every race…..the nervous poo! – I felt this was a good omen. It is simply a natural phenomenon and one which I now embrace as tradition, a race simply cannot start, and will not therefore have a good outcome, unless this ritual has been completed. And so it was with a spring in my step, a couple of pounds lighter and the psychological knowledge that I had paid my dues to Colon, the greek god of the intestinal tract (Google it, I dare you) that I felt I was finally ready to throw my leg over the top-tube and take my place amongst all the hopeful riders for the countdown…..
It had been decided that since it was my 40th birthday I would have the honour of doing the first stint, although I’m not sure about the value of this honour, at the time I figured I was going to be spending enough time in the saddle, so surely my birthday should have given me the excuse to sit in the car for this first 35km stretch?! – no, seriously, I was touched that my team-mates wanted me to start us off on this epic journey, no really I was!
We all got to cross the line together, but then as we left the seafront road, the others could jump into one of the support cars and head straight to the first point of the course where follow-cars were allowed.
The first stretch was on a dedicated bike-path away from the coast and into the surrounding rolling hillsides. We had recc’ed this first few miles as it was a little complicated, so this helped me relax a little as I knew where I was going to a certain extent. I did my best to calm my nerves and get my heart rate under control, as the enormity of what we had now started really sunk in. I spun
easily along the 10km or so of bike path conscious that there was a strictly enforced speed-limit of 16mph which we had been told about in the rider briefing just 48hrs prior. It seemed that some people had selective hearing in this respect as I wasn’t 10mins down the path before a pair of riders from an 8man team came past me in full on TTT mode doing about 25mph. I shook my head and chuckled, and sure enough when I got the place where the path re-joined the road proper, the boys had been stopped for breaking the rules and were being made to wait around till they had resumed the place in the running order they should have been in had they not been so aurally challenged! As it was I had managed to hold roughly the right pace despite my Garmin keeping speed in Km/h and I just had to wait 30secs or so before being released on the race-course proper since I was just a little too fast, but the two-up time trial boys were held back for quite a while, at least I assume so since it took them a lot longer the second time round before they came past me.
A loop over a small bridge and a right turn on a main road (was still getting used to riding on the right after all the miles in the UK), and I was into proper California countryside. Initial levels of adrenaline were still high and I tried desperately to keep my heart-rate in check and the effort levels below threshold where I knew as long as I kept fuelling I could keep going for a long time. After a surprisingly hilly opening 35km it was time to handover to Mike. It was good to see the whole team and we really felt like things had got very real and we needed to settle into life on the road. The next few hours seemed to be one long series of climbs, with very little in the way of payback in between. After a cool start to the day (I had a gilet on for that first stint for goodness sake), the temperature started to climb and so Mike and I were riding consistent 30min pulls before swapping and getting some cooling time in the car. It was a good system that seemed to work at the time. In hindsight, having this basis of 30mins was a good starting point but we both agree that we should have allowed for some longer stints during the cooler periods of the day or on the flatter sections. We had all been riding 4-5hr training rides consistently week in week out, so racing up to a 2hr slot or similar when the conditions allowed would have let the resting rider really recover properly, and potentially allow each pair to carry a longer shift giving the other pair some proper down time to get some sleep. I have to take at least part responsibility for this as I think I gave a bit too much creedence to some of the chats I had had with previous participants, suggesting that shorter shifts allowed a team to keep the pace higher. In hindsight (yes, it’s a wonderful thing), we should have relaxed the grip a little on our average speed and allowed for some longer, steadier stints during the more favourable conditions when they allowed.
As I write, I am finding it hard to piece together memories of the next 48Hrs or so, at least in any kind of order, so I am going to package the highlights into the selection of crystallised moments in time as I reminisce like some middle-aged Harry Potter dipping his face into a strange USA shaped pensieve.
- Late during the first evening, Mike and I both had our TT bikes on the road for the first time. Kev and Carol had handed over to us after dropping down the glass elevator in winds that felt like god had plugged in the hairdryer and flicked the speed to 11. We could tell it was very scary out there as we followed a rider from another team down and he was getting blasted all over the road. Even stopping briefly because our car collectively needed a pee at the side of the road, the wind was swirling that bad that I covered my shoes and socks with a liberal spraying of my own urine. Anyway, I digress. Our next handover was at dusk somewhere in the desert.
Kev had just done a massive turn and clocked up some ridiculous speeds across the barren landscape, obviously the Strava segments don’t have thousands of competitors, but what they do have are all RAAM riders, so when Kev clocked a Top 5 on a long flat 10mile segment which has been part of the course for the last decade at least, then you know he was shifting! So Mike and I hit the ground running as the sun went down. A memory that will stay with me forever came later that evening, the darkness holding me in a little cocoon, just the brilliant white triangle of light from my front Exposure light showing me the way, suddenly I came towards an outpost border check for the Mexican border. The route-book had mentioned this place and that we should be allowed to pass straight through but if stopped just stay polite, not to wind up the border police and we’d be rolling again soon enough. As I approached it felt like we were arriving at the bar in Dusk Till Dawn as the lights created an oasis of activity in the otherwise pitch black desert landscape. Needless to say, as I pedalled towards it feeling like a lycra-clad Quentin Tarrantino (I know I’m not cool enough for a Clooney comparison so my brain didn’t even attempt it), I started picturing scenes in my mind of vampires and crutch-mounted machine pistols. I sat up off the bars expecting to be flagged down at any moment. Then as I realised no-one was coming out of the main building toting an AK-47 or indeed had no real interest in me or why the knob-head in spandex (that’s what they call it in ‘Murica) was doing pedalling through the boarder on a weird looking bike, I decided to put the pedal to the metal and streaked through at a comfortable tailwind assisted 45kmh! God it felt good. It was only after I got off the bike and my crew were talking about how fast they had been driving to keep up with me that I realised I had done a sub-20min 10mile section and taken a top 5 all time section of my own…..get in!!
- We rode that first night till 2am and then handed back over to Carol and Kev, they were on the real graveyard shift purely due to timings and since Mike and I had done the 1st few hours. We, on the other hand knew that between 2am and 8am we had to get some rest in as best as possible. We had been told that there were a number of motels at or near the next timing station where we were likely to be taking back over the reigns, so we drove quickly to put maximum distance in and hoped that there would be somewhere for our crew and us to get our heads down for a few hours once we got there. As it turned out, the only room at all that wasn’t already occupied or booked up months in advance was the one that was set aside for allowing riders and crew to shower and change for a donation. We were out of luck on the beds front…. so we got creative and that first night found the 4 of us trying to lie as horizontal as possible in the boot of the car, across the back seats, or in Gammas case, on the park bench that we had parked infront of! We all knew that the sleep deprivation and ad-lib part of this mission was going to be critical, but that didn’t really help when I was trying to feel human again but couldn’t stomach much in the way of fuel when the sun rose and we started to try and get ourselves ready for the day and back on our bikes. We drove to find the point that Kev and Carol had ridden to and swapped back over, and they went to try and get some rest of their own. Fortunately, as the sun rose and I turned the pedals more I felt more and more human, which was a result as the hills on the horizon were looming ever larger.
- Later that day, the climbing seemed to be never-ending. Mike and I were doing very short stints during the heat of the day, we were riding and climbing strong, but the pace was slow and the going hard. The sun felt like it was softening the tarmac under my wheels and the feeling that a ghostly force was gently tugging at the back of my seat post.
- Later the same day though and things were feeling pretty alpine. We were still climbing, but the heat had gone and we were amongst the pine trees and heading towards Flagstaff, Arizona. On a couple of handovers to Mike during this phase, we felt relaxed and cool, had gotten into our stride and we really felt like we were in the process of breaking the back of this thing. I kept looking at the profile of the race when I was in the car and looking at the front loaded nature of all the climbing and thinking “We’ve got this, confidence will breed more confidence, I just need to keep feeling positive and it’s going to be alright”. My body may have been talking in a slightly different language, but all the 24hr races and things in the past had taken me to some dark places and I knew that the psychological game was going to be key and that my body would withstand what I was throwing at it, I just needed to keep my head in the game. At least that’s what I thought at the time.
- After we handed over to Kev and Carol that evening the game was on to get down to Flagstaff, find the hotel that my support crew had been desperately trying to contact to book a couple of “Family” rooms as quick as possible, get something to eat and get some sleep before getting up and getting back on the bike. The crew were on fire, we arrived at the hotel bikes off room and up into rooms, luggage out and then a couple of the guys (sorry I can’t remember who!) dashed to the local burger joint and came back with armfuls of dirty, greasy goodness. We all sat in bed in the hotel rooms stuffing our faces with burgers, fries and milkshakes and hoping that the impending Mc-Coma would rejuvenate our tired bodies and fire up our shattered brains.
- As it turned out, our strategy felt like it had worked, when Mike, our crews and I found ourselves back outside the hotel after just 2.5hrs sleep, greeted by a cold, crisp and damp feeling morning in Flagstaff, but everyone seemed to have a boost of fast-food-fuelled energy. We knew that the timing had worked out that we should be approaching and riding through Monument Valley in the morning and as one of the landmark images both of the USA and of the RAAM itself, we were really looking forward to seeing the great rock formations themselves, and obviously the simple fact of ticking off a big landmark from the route book as “done”. As a consequence we were a little bit giddy as I rode through some roadworks as we entered monument valley. I was feeling strong, like a proper bike-rider, and was in a decent gear, turning the pedals fast but trying to stay as fluid as possible. Mike and I were briefly running from one car and rather than put extra pressure on us it meant that we could have a chat, and in the end we decided to ride through the key part of Monument Valley as a 2-up. It didn’t last long but it meant that we broke up the slightly isolating feeling of being the only one out there on the bike by being able to ride shoulder to shoulder with my friend.
- After another “off-shift” spent trying to get a suitable distance up the road and then trying to crowbar more food into me, this time it was a pork-burger if I remember rightly from a BBQ that was set up as part of a timing station. It was at this point that I really didn’t feel like eating and went to the bathroom a couple of times and sat feeling a bit sorry for myself. Still, I told myself, get back on the bike and you’ll feel better with the wind in your face. This worked to a point, as we took the baton back, and started riding through the heat of the afternoon and once again the gradient went upwards into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
The heat was getting very intense again, and there was some long, hard stretches to be negotiated, I think at this point all of us were looking forward to the mountains and in particular coming down the other side. In the meantime though I found myself on what felt like the most exposed hillside in the world, with the sun beating down on my back and just turning the pedals. There’s some phone video footage of this which doesn’t do the size of the climb justice, but I winched my way up it and as I did so, I felt like if I could get through this section we could get through anything on a bike. As I climbed I was getting messages that Mike and his crew had found it hard to pull over to execute a change in rider, so it was looking more likely that I was just going to have to keep riding and get over the crest of the climb at which point there was a decent descent I could luxuriate into like an ice-cold coke after a hard day on the bike….something I was looking forward to when I reached the car, and that this was to be our last stint of the shift. I was feeling pretty dreadful at this point but was hoping if I could get my head down in the car I would feel better when we next took over in the cool of the evening somewhere near the top of the rockies, bring it on.
- Maybe bring it on wasn’t the best thing to be thinking at that moment, because unbeknownst to me, but fate had something else in store for me. And so it was to be that that last effort on the climb, pushing myself hard, feeling rotten but ultimately confident about the task at hand, was to be the last time I turned a pedal on the race. We got in our cars and dashed ahead to the town of Durango, which is the gateway to all mountain sports at this end of the Rockies. The aim was to get a good meal and for the riders and crew to get a little bit of rest before we would meet up again somewhere in the high mountains to take over for the night-shift. The guys found a great steak restaurant in town, but I simply couldn’t face it. I decided to stay lying in the back of the car as long as I could trying to let sleep heal whatever it was that was causing me to feel this ropey. I convinced myself that the multitude of symptoms I was feeling was a mixture of heat, dehydration (despite having been like my own drinking gestapo officer so far aided by Gemma and Laura telling me to keep it going in!), and altitude. I had been at altitude a lot before and generally got on a lot better that I thought I would, but I figured that after a couple of nights of sleep deprivation, the race and the heat, all bets were off and I was just feeling the accumulated effects of this particular trident of misery direct from Satan’s fitted wardrobe. In the end I managed to walk to the restaurant and force myself to eat a little food, but it tasted vile and I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t going to see it again at some point soon. I also visited the mens room half a dozen times in the space of an hour as it felt like I needed it and that it would help if I could just relieve the pressure inside my jaded body.
- I dozed in the back of the car as we climbed higher and higher. I knew how brutalised Kev and Carol would be feeling as they made their way up the long steady climb that took them to Pagosa Springs where we were going to change shifts again and I felt for them, but by now I really didn’t really know what was going on, I remember seeing the top of tall pine trees and big patches of blue sky when I opened my eyes from my bijou hotel room wedged between my kitbags and the rear wheel-arch. I begged my body to start feeling better, but by the time we all met in a petrol station carpark I felt like someone had stolen my legs, scrubbed my insides with a Brillo pad and slipped some sort of low level poison into a couple of jaeger-bombs that I didn’t realise I had drunk but was now suffering the effects of. In hindsight I was also “ignoring” a number of pains that I was just putting down to the rigours of the race: My back was very painful and aching, but I assumed that this was just getting on and off the bike so many times in the last 72Hrs. My undercarriage was very tender, passing water was problematic at best and it felt like David Beckham had used my testicles for some curling free-kick practice. I should have known better, but I genuinely did think that these things were purely circumstantial and that in time the main factors would be dealt with (Heat, Water and Altitude) so if I could just get over the top of these damn mountains things would start to come back together. Incidentally, I have historically felt that the mountains are my spiritual home, I love riding my bike in them, skiing down them, sitting and looking at them and breathing the crisp, pollutant free air.
On this occasion however, I couldn’t wait to get out of the mountains and back to sea level. I kept thinking about how shit it had felt being on chemo, or driving 45mins each way just for a radiologist to burn my whole body and send me home with a blistered throat, scarred lungs and painful skin all over my torso. And then I thought, there’s a 5 or 10yr old somewhere feeling that exact same way, and they needed me to man up and get through this so I could stand in front of them and honestly say that things do get better and that I was hurting myself in solidarity today so we could make his/her life a little bit easier and hopefully inspire them during their life after cancer. That was all happening on the inside, from the outside looking back at pictures of the last couple of stints on the bike, I realise now just how trashed I was starting to look.
- At risk of sounding like I am rushing to a climax for this episode, I only really remember snippets of the next few hours. As we stood in that parking lot, we had a team meeting trying to clear the air and get some things straight about the task still ahead and helping get the strategy right for the next phase of the race and the long flat sections across middle America. I remember the conversation with osteopath Sarah who backed up what the rest of my support crew were telling me that this wasn’t “normal” fatigue and that I needed to rest and heal before carrying on. Thank-you Sarah for getting me to stop, to this day I believe that I was still seriously contemplating getting back on the bike thinking the wind in my face would help ease all my symptoms…. a decision that in the end could have been a fatal mistake to make. Decision made about getting some hotel rooms for a few hours, I just had to listen to those around me and did my best to drink as much as possible in between sleep. I can safely say that what I can remember, that nights sleep was amongst the worst I’ve ever had, and that’s saying a lot as a cancer survivor. I’ve got a vague recollection of the film crew coming into the room to say hello and see how I was before heading off to catch up with the others as they summited Wolf-Creek Pass. I sort of remember needing help to carry my own weight into the lift down to the car in the morning, after a longer “rest” period than I had anticipated and having to physically hang on to Sam as he dragged me through the lobby. By this point I had relented and agreed to get things checked out at the medical centre in the town. Thank you to Sam, Laura and Gemma for looking after me that night and making me walk through those sliding doors into the ER. I honestly believe that these guys saved my life that night with one decision…..I still owe them, big time.
- Sat in a wheelchair in the emergency room of the Pagosa Springs Hospital, I had no idea how serious things were, could have been or were still about to get, but the admissions doctor was under no illusions, as they recorded a temperature up somewhere over 42 degrees and a resting pulse of over 200! ( I can’t get it past 185 even on the hardest of efforts on the bike). There was a definite moment of “Do-not pass go, do not collect £200”, as I slipped in and out of consciousness and the words infection and septic shock started ringing in my ears. I’m going to save what happened next till Episode 3, but it was getting more and more obvious (if not to myself at this point) that my RAAM was going to end in the mountains that I usually love so much and that I was skating right up to the edge of mortality once again. As the antibiotics started coursing through my system and the opioids took hold I slipped into the sleep of the broken and would eventually find out what was going on inside my body a day or so later…..to be continued……