Race Across America: Emotional Rollercoaster and Near Death Experiences
When I started writing this blog/story I had intended it to be one post, then as I got to the length of the average Grisham novel and was only half way through the tale of what happened this summer, I decided to go easy on you, so I’ve split it into 3 episodes, The Prep, The Riding and The Aftermath. I hope its worth a read, enjoy this first part, and I hope you come back for episodes 2 and 3!:
On the 16th of June 2018 (My 40th Birthday incidentally), 4 cyclists from 4 corners of the UK set out to compete in the Race Across America, arguably the toughest cycling event in the world, in order to raise awareness and funds for, and inspire children (or anyone for that matter) living with a Cancer diagnosis all over the country. The following is my account of being one of those riders and a Trustee Director for the charity, and what happened when we attempted to organise to transport/race 4 Riders, 15 Crew and a film crew across the USA from west coast to east:
Episode 1: The Preparation
It has taken me quite a long time to start writing all this down, in-fact, I am still struggling to write this even as I sit here with my feet up at home, some 2 months after the fact.
Simply trying to make sense of how I feel about it all has caused me to lie awake at night, none the wiser as to whether the overwhelming feeling is one of disappointment, or pride, or luck that I am still here, or anger at certain things that happened, or sadness for feeling like it was a missed opportunity for publicising the work of our charity (www.cyclistsfc.org.uk incase you didn’t already know!). Obviously, the only true answer to that question is that it has to be a mixture of all of those feelings. In the next few paragraphs I hope to give you an insight into all of them.
The amount of preparation and time all the riders put in to training for this event was immense. Yes, none of us had recent racing pedigrees meaning we already had elite levels of endurance fitness, but that made it all the more important that we prepared well and made ourselves into as strong a team as we possibly could. Preparation and planning started over a year before we sat on the start-line, there was a lot to be done.
As it turned out, the physical training element of the project was one of the simpler parts to execute and certainly one of the most successful. One call to one of the best cycling coaches around and we had on board someone who could give us the expertise, structure and motivate us to become the best cyclists we could be in the time we had available. Step forward Jody Warrington of Transition Cycle Coaching (www.onlinecyclecoaching.com).
Without Jody’s help, the riders would have been no-where near the form that we all arrived in California in, without exception, the riders turned up lighter, leaner, more powerful and more confident than we could have imagined when we started, thank you so much Jody.
From a personal perspective my preparation would have been much much harder without the continued support of Laura from LK Rehab too, she worked on putting me back together when the training load increased and allowed me to take each training session in my stride as well as doing her own fundraising events at work and coming out with us to help look after all the riders as we took on this epic challenge, thanks so much Laura! Oh, and while I’m at it, thanks to Danny at Deft Motion, Manchester for helping with the Strength and Conditioning aspect of the mission, without this I just wouldn’t have been strong enough to withstand even the training load, let alone race-week itself.
All of this meant that we arrived in California one week before kick-off looking like serious hitters. Mike was as lean as ever and super strong, Kev had improved his power to weight ratio by some serious numbers, and Carol was a transformed rider from the one we had first dragged into this stupidity 7 months before. As for me, I was definitely the strongest I had been since prior to my own cancer diagnosis back in 2001, and felt like all the hours on the turbo trainer and out on the road under Jody’s guidance were about to pay me back with interest.
So, truth be told, I had found that I genuinely was seeing the training part of my preparation as “Time off”, I didn’t need to think about anything, it was time I could ignore the emails, put to the back of my mind the constant image of the sand timer slowly running out towards the day we needed to be ready to fly to San Diego and just concentrate on the numbers, the wattage, the interval, the effort, repeating my tongue in cheek mantra “Pain is just French for Bread!” which I often got stuck in my head along with blasting my ears with some heavy metal, hip-hop or drum and bass from my rapidly ballooning “RAAM 2018” playlist.
With tragic regularity however, after the session was uploaded and either the euphoria of hitting perfect numbers or disappointment of not quite being on form had worn off, the pressures of organising the logistics of our mission growled at me like a rabid dog in the corner of my mind.
As a team we had been planning this event for almost 18months by the time we would be sat waiting for the chequered flag to drop in California. Initially this time frame felt like we were well ahead of the game, but the time seemed to slip through our fingers like water. A big part of the time pressure revolved around us trying to reach out to as many contacts as possible to help support our challenge.
As a small charity, we are always desperate to avoid the pitfalls that are often reported of events being run at a loss or large amounts of charity funds going towards costs of running this type of challenge. We really wanted to make sure that the corporate sponsorship we could raise would cover the costs of the event itself so that every pound we raised through individual fundraising would go straight to our core work of working to make the lives of children with cancer just a little bit better and hopefully bring a smile to their faces and those of their families during such dark times.
Because of this we had a very strict budget and we were desperate to stay within it. This in turn led to a roller coaster of joy when a new sponsor came on board, or someone who had previously promised some form of support coming good. Then despair when someone else got in touch to say they didn’t have the budget to provide what we needed or already supported other athletes or charity events. During a team meeting down in Stratford-Upon-Avon, the bombshell was casually dropped into conversation that the hire cars, which were supposedly “in hand” and had previously been hopeful that a major provider was going to supply us with was not going to happen. With a need for 4 crew cars and one media car to finance and drive all the way across the USA, this was going to take up several thousand pounds and ergo a huge chunk of our budget if we couldn’t find another sponsor. A few solitary weeks away from D-Day and it felt less like the shit had hit the fan, rather the fan had short-circuited, blown apart and shrapnel had impaled me against the office door with their foul-smelling crap covered spears. Apologies for the imagery.
Cue the entrance of arguably our greatest saviours during the organisational period….the film crew. James and James from Anattic Films came on-board at a really early stage in the event. I met James C through a friend who worked in the coffee-shop downstairs from my apartment (more about them later) and after an initial discussion, they had very kindly agreed to come and create a documentary all about CFC and our attempt at RAAM. They would be self funding the whole project and were really excited about the charity and what it stood for from the outset.
Early on we had discussed a contact that the guys had made with Sixt Rental Cars here in the UK and in Europe, and we had made initial contact about our need for vehicles for RAAM. Over the course of the next few weeks, we had a number of conversations with the powers that be at Sixt, as well as the obligatory mile-long email trail. The possibility that they could help seemed to increase and decrease in likelihood on an almost daily basis. During one period of doubt you could have actually find me and the two James’ camped out at the front door of a car-rental comparison website that I realised had their head office in Manchester, so we went to try and doorstep someone in their management team!
Then, one day, we got the message that we had all been crossing our fingers for “Let’s get these cars booked!” it said. Halle-flippin-lujah. You can only imagine the levels of ecstasy involved when I read that missive. A huge weight had been lifted off our shoulders, and it felt like the budget we had to work with was suddenly a whole lot more realistic. Relief is not even close. It was only on arrival at San Diego airport rental car lot a few weeks later, that we truly realised how much of an ally we had found in some of the Sixt staff…. we got there and found 4 of the most incredible vehicles ready and waiting for us…..
To add to this support, Sixt also supplied the film crew with a specific vehicle which they knew would work best for being able to attach camera equipment inside, and even sorted out another very posh car that they gave some us to drive from Manchester to Gatwick for our flight out to the USA. For saving my sanity and our race, I can’t thank the guys at Sixt Rental enough.
The Anattic boys also helped hugely in sorting out our crew/leisure kit for the team. We knew we weren’t going to be winning the event, but it was a big deal to make sure the team looked like a team, and felt like a team, it helps get everyone in the right mindset and would make sure that we could repay the kindness of our sponsors by getting them some exposure for their brands. This process wasn’t without its headaches either, after being let down by a local company who had shares in a custom clothing manufacturer, James called in a favour from a contact at Ellesse clothing and they agreed to supply the team with some shorts, t-shirts and hoodies that we could have screen printed with logos etc. As our departure date grew closer, Ellesse were still waiting for certain items at their warehouse, and with time running out, they sent what they could. Unfortunately in the end they couldn’t send everything we needed, so I had to supplement the shorts and t-shirts they could get to us in time, with some more “blanks” and called in a favour of my own, so a huge thanks out to www.appliqueapparel.com in Manchester as well for getting the garments, printing them and selling them to me at cost price, thanks guys!
As it turned out, the Riders kit was also going to be running right down to the wire. We did have the most pimpin’ race-wear for the race, supplied very kindly by NoPinz from here in the UK, so a massive thanks too to Blake and his team. Their riding clothing really is at another level in terms of aero properties and fit. The bespoke nature of our kit however meant that as we flew out to the USA there had only been time to get an initial amount of kit to us before we left, so the rest of our riding kit (quite an crucial set of items I think you’ll agree) was sent to us in California via a courier and all the riders were massively relieved when it all arrived in the knick of time!
The stress didn’t stop there (sorry, I sound like a right whinger, am just trying to tell the full story!). Obviously getting people across a country is one thing, getting 6 Bikes (we were taking 4 road bikes and 2 TT bikes) across the USA is another headache entirely. We had in principle secured support for some vacuum operated bike racks to mount on the roof of the cars. As it turned out, this was the thing that pushed me to the brink of a nervous breakdown, as far as organisational logistics goes. After (again) a lot of emails and chasing, it turned out that the supplier didn’t have any stock of the racks that we needed in the UK, so to cut a long story short, I ended up managing to purchase the racks directly from the manufacturer in Florida, paying the UK importers cost price which helped a lot, and then the racks were shipped to us in our rental accommodation that we had sorted out in San Diego for the week before the race kicked off. It went down to the wire with me watching the FedEx tracking website waiting for them to land in each depot and they arrived just a couple of days before we were due on the start line, at which point I finally allowed myself to breathe out!
I feel like I could write a whole load more about the preparation for this huge event, and if you want to know the entire story then feel free to give me a shout and we can meet for a coffee, but for the rest of you I know you probably have a life to get back to so I will wrap this episode up soon.
All that was left was to get everyone down to Gatwick airport, over to the USA, find the house, do a few leg loosening training rides, oh and put everything we’d been preparing for into practice, build bikes, sign-write the cars, attach roof racks for bikes, go to the rider briefing and press conference, make sure our Garmin devices all had the maps on and worked, get all the food sorted out, sort out race radio system (this had been another nightmare, with them getting lost in the post after a friend kindly agreeing to let us use his system and sending it to me, but it arrived in the knick of time too, there’s a pattern there somewhere I’m sure!), sort out uprating the fuses in the vehicles to cope with everything we would need to charge, sort bike and car lighting out for the night stages, make sure our bikes and vehicles conformed to the strict race regulations, try and send notes and messages to clients from my day job before I couldn’t reply anymore, and try to get some sleep……
As you can imagine, I arrived in California not really with the surf-dude, chill-out, medicinal marijuana style relaxed state that I had hoped to be in, and that week in San Diego was non-stop. I was strong enough to ride but I was run-down with stress. Frustratingly, although it shouldn’t have been the case and the riders should have been concentrating on just riding, training, eating and sleeping, due to the nature of our team and our budget constraints, most people volunteering their time for free (for which I am eternally grateful, they know who they are and I’m certainly not suggesting we could have done it without them) it’s just that a lot of the logistical aspects of the mission landed back on the riders to sort out.
There are so many people I still need to thank but I am going to save that so that I can think about it all and use the thank-yous as a wrap up in my last episode of this probable trilogy of blog posts reflecting on everything that went on in the USA and in the aftermath. Stay tuned for part 2, hopefully it won’t take me another 2 month to write it now that I’ve got things flowing. I will introduce you to all the other members of the 20 Strong team over the next episodes as long as you have found the grace and willpower to stick with me!
Thanks for reading, stay safe on the road or trails, love to all,