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Race Across America Episode 3: Rescues and Reflections

So. This is definitely the hardest of my little RAAM trilogy to write. The end of my ride, the aftermath, all the surrounding feelings and emotions, where it has left me today and where I go from here.

Last time I wrote I had just been admitted into the emergency department at the hospital. I was due to stay in the same part of the hospital while they helped me turn the infection round that was rampaging through my bloodstream, like some low-rent gang of football hooligans clad head-to-toe in designer label bacteria. I have to admit, a lot of what went on for the next few hours and overnight that night is hazy at best for me. Slipping in and out of consciousness while the antibiotics hopefully started to turn the tide on the infection. Instinctively I know it should have been frustrating and hard to sleep whilst hooked up to bleeping monitors and IV lines, Oxygen tubes and checked on every 5 minutes to check my vital signs…. but, on the other hand, I was, as they say in nightclubs I’m much to old for now, off my tits on drugs. Every-time the opiate based cocktail went in was like someone installing a nice warm blanket on the inside of my veins, releasing the presta-valve of pressure that had built up between dozes, and giving me a welcome sense of gentle euphoria and for a few minutes I really couldn’t give a shit about the state I was in, how my team-mates were getting on, whether I was being unfair on those that had stayed to look after me from my crew or what the impact on my family who were at home worrying about me.

With morning, however, came a slightly clearer head, still a whole world of pain and discomfort, but with it a Top-10 smash hits of guilt and anguish at what was happening for my team as well as more than a liberal sprinkling of worry about the war my body was still waging.

The physical battle was put into context, crystallised, and then hammered into my fragile being like a battery from a verbal baseball bat by my saviour, Doctor John (not that one, he didn’t even have a didgeridoo). As I started to string together more cognitive function, I was still labouring under the illusion that this was an infection sure, but not much worse than many other infections that I’d seen off over the years.

So I asked Dr.John “Is there a tablet form of this anti0biotic?”,  and “how soon can I take them if there is and do you think it’ll be tomorrow that I can get back on the road?”.

His reply to my inquisition was, quote “Are you making fun of me Richard?”. “No Doctor, why?”. “Because when you came in here you weren’t much more than a couple of hours away from going home in a bag! If you had tried to do what you said to me in your drug induced state about just rolling gently on your bike until you got lower down the mountain, you would have been too far from here and too far from any other medical facility”. Smash hits like: “You have severe acute sepsis, the levels of bacteria in your bloodstream are off the charts”. And my personal favourite “You know, even from this stage, we still lose 30% of patients in your situation, don’t you?”. Ok doc, a good point well made, I’ll stay here for a bit then till you tell me I’m safe to leave shall I?

That’s when it really started to sink in that my race was over, I wasn’t going to reach the finish line with my friends and I had better start getting used to the fact that I was lucky to be alive rather than annoyed that I couldn’t get back on the road and catch up with my team.

One thing at this stage that actually helped, was that the fact that I was already sleep deprived from the previous 3 days riding, and that it seemed every cell of my body that was still under my command was grabbing whatever energy and weapons it could in the fight against sepsis. This meant there really wasn’t much energy left to be stressed anymore. Layer on top of that the dealers, sorry I mean nurses, kept offering me more turbo-painkillers and my hospital bed in a quiet room in the middle of the Rocky Mountains was a lot more cosy than it deserved to be. So I slept, and then I dozed, and then I fell asleep again.

There was also a lot of emotion flying around my head based on what felt like cataclysmic levels of irony that, whilst trying to promote recovery from Cancer and show that there was life to be lived after treatment etc, to then find myself back in another hospital room, with many identical features to the rooms I had spent weeks in during chemotherapy or isolation from other infections….I was livid with my body! I felt strangely guilty, almost that I could no longer back up the concept that the 4 of us had gone on to amazing feats of endurance as cancer survivors. Was I now not in a position to try to promote these ideas and would it damage the message for the very people I was trying to give hope to and inspire in a small way?

I just lied there and crossed my weak fingers that it wouldn’t put people off challenging themselves and being active during their recovery. I know this was a bit irrational and I couldn’t have predicted the arrival of the infection and I was doing something at the somewhat “Bonkers” end of the activity spectrum, but there was no escaping the thought processes.

As I started to feel a little better, between falling asleep again, I tried to send messages to our followers and some words of encouragement to my teammates and re-assurance to my family back at home. These messages etc were some of the hardest I had ever had to send in my life. Knowing that the riders were having to work even harder since I was no longer with them. Knowing that so many friends and family back at home had helped me, ridden with me while I was training, supported me and sponsored the team and that I wasn’t going to finish the job they had all been a massive part of helping me start.

By this point, the guys that were with me were also getting messages from the rest of the team back out on the road, some of which they kept from me (like discussions about whether they were going to ride on “in-tribute” to me if I didn’t make it!) and some they would chat through around my bedside. We heard about the nightmare of a serious electrical storm that found some of the team bunkered down in a church basement overnight and riding through torrential rain. After a while we started to hear that there was some confusion over whether the team was running out of time against the clock to finish within the pre-arranged official finishing cut-off for the race. The guys with me worked the maths and from a purely mathematical standpoint after the storms etc had passed, they couldn’t see a reason why they wouldn’t make it to the finish in time. Apparently at this stage the tracking system used by the race organisers was showing some conflicting numbers regarding average speed and predicted finishes, but as far as we were concerned back in Colorado, there was still scope to finish comfortably even with some good time to have some proper rest and sleep for all riders and crew. It was really hard though for us to voice these thoughts as we were getting snippets of things back from the team talking about divisions and frustrations between some of the guys which was really saddening to hear, and we also felt we weren’t in a position to advise fully since we were stuck hundreds of miles away and couldn’t put ourselves in the shoes of the guys who were up the road, even more sleep deprived than we had been when we stopped and another notch higher on the fatigue spectrum. So even though we thought they could do it and still believed in the rest of the team, we equally didn’t feel we should insert ourselves too much in the discussions as we weren’t there.

In the end, we got the message that the team had actually phoned the race-organisers to call in a DNF. We were all gutted and couldn’t understand it at first, it was such a blow to know that the team would not be crossing the finish-line, either with or without me. In the aftermath of it all there has obviously been a lot of discussion and dissection of events surrounding this finish. It’s quite painful still to think about it and to think of all the preparation that went into the event, all the hours all 4 riders spent out on the road or on the turbo trainer, and to have it end that way. All things considered there were lessons to be learned about the approach to the race and to selection of crew members. I don’t want to turn any of this whole experience into something negative, as overall I am so proud of the team and everyone involved in what we did, but I need to tell this element of the story as I feel it had a large impact on the outcome.  Unfortunately there were some things that happened that could be taken at best as “creative differences” or more simply a case of one unmotivated and negative attitude that for one reason or another spread the rot to a few others.

It broke my heart to hear the guys had been told to call in a DNF and I knew the team would be hurting both physically and emotionally.

I have spoken before about the stress that resulted from some of the riders having had to shoulder the greatest burden of organising the event in the first place. We had arrived in California stressed, but equally hopeful that the only party who was actually being paid for their expertise and help was finally going to prove really valuable to our band of heroes as we tried to push bikes across the country. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen, instead the opposite was true and a climate of uncharacteristic bullying and ridicule created more stress for riders and crew alike and some usually positive members of the team found themselves unwittingly brought down somewhat along the way.

In hindsight (what a wonderful thing!), I had initially asked a very good friend of mine to come and crew-chief for us. He is someone who has organised multi-million pound projects for work, has a military background and has ridden with me and supported me through numerous 24hr races and endurance events as well as being instrumental in my recovery and return to form after my own cancer battle. I’m not sure I have told him this explicitly, but I will always be grateful to him and a couple of other friends for waiting for me for what must have amounted to hours and hours at the top of every climb of every mountain bike ride we went on in those early recovery months (Paul, Dan, and Matt thank you from the bottom of my heart).

Anyway, I digress. Given the nature of our team and the reasons we were taking on the challenge, I had asked if he would do the job for us but he’d had to turn the opportunity down as he felt that he couldn’t afford to put in the amount of time into the project that he would want to given new business commitments he had as well as lots more he had on his plate. At the time I had accepted this with a heavy heart, but fully understood his position. Sat here now I wish I had persevered and maybe found a way to have compensated him for just a few hours a week during the build up to the event as I know he would have helped me get so much more done in those few hours than the situation we ended up with. I truly believe that had I had a more relaxed build up to the race I may have avoided my immune system having a gaping hole in it that let the kidney infection through (don’t get me wrong I take full responsibility for putting the stress on myself, it’s just that things needed to get done and done within budget, not just lamenting the lack of funds and complaining that we needed more). I also believe that Paul would have fitted more with our “rookie” attempt at the race. Looking back, it would have meant much more to have had his positivity and Team-Dad persona on board looking after everyone with a firm but caring efficiency, rather than trying to force-fill a role with someone who may have had more cycling event experience. Going forward, if I am ever a part of a ridiculous challenge like this again I will go into it open eyed and have no doubt that we could do a few simple things differently to build a team that would gel together and overcome all the adversity together.

Trying to get my lungs working again…

Back in Colorado, and I was starting to regain strength, although I was working with a very different machine to the one that I had pushed over the first few climbs on the race just a few short days earlier. It was as much as I could do to walk to the en-suite and lower myself onto the bowl. Annoyingly this was something I was doing with excruciating regularity as I tried to keep drinking fluids, there was a constant saline drip attached to me and my kidneys and bladder had taken that much of a kicking that it was some sort of a cruel joke how painful it was to pass and how often I had to do it! I had started to reduce the amount of painkillers involved and was slowly turning the corner as far as the infections were concerned.

It was then the turn of my amazing family to come to my rescue and take over from Sam, Laura and Gemma who had been there for me every second until this point. I had not wanted to burden my family with my woes, but I knew this wasn’t going to fly with them and when I relented and said I did want them to come and take me home, I broke down again. Knowing my wife and daughter were on their way intensified the guilt I was feeling that they were having to make the extra journey but also filled me with joy that I was going to be able to hold them tight again. As I lay there in bed that night I think it really hit me how close to not going home in one piece I had been. Not only that, but my parents were coming with them too and they were all on a plane on their way to find me and extract me, CIA operative style, from this place. Anyone who knows my folks knows that I can’t adequately put into words how much they have supported me through everything that life has thrown at us. They have literally picked up the pieces of my broken body on many occasions and rebuilt me, and here they were having to do it again!

I don’t really know what else to say to thank those closest to me. To Zoë and Erin, thank you for being the better 2/3 of me, for all your support with everything that I do, for cheering me on on every cold turbo session on the balcony and just being the best little family that so often in the past I never thought I was going to be blessed with, I love you both so much. And to Mum and Dad, thanks for constantly putting up with me putting you through the emotional ringer. I can only apologise for the amount of times you have had to tell people “He’s going to be ok, but…..”! And to my big sister, sorry you made that journey out there to California for me only to not follow through and get the job done, you know I will always be there when you need me and I know you are always there for me, thanks!

Leaving hospital with my smallest rescuer…..

Eventually (it felt like I had been there for ages) I got the all clear from the hospital and was allowed to leave. We elected to stay in the hotel nearby for a night or 2 before attempting to get a flight to New York where the plan was to catch up with the rest of the team. Partly this was to stay close to the hospital just incase we still needed anything, and partly because I simply didn’t have the strength to walk more than a few yards at a time before going back to sleep! – I managed to sit in the sunshine and enjoyed watching Erin, Mummy, Nanny and Grandad embark on a game of crazy golf on the most well maintained course I’ve ever seen. It was amazing to be able to rest and recover with my family in the sunshine and mountains, although another part of me just wanted to get home to my own bed as soon as we could.

At this stage I should also give my huge, nowhere near big enough still thanks to the doctors and nurses that looked after me through some really risky times. At all times they went over and above to make sure that I got the best treatment I could and left no stone unturned to make sure that I would go home.

Dr.John, what a guy!

It is truly no exaggeration that they saved my life in those few days, without finding that health centre and in particular Dr.John, I have no doubt things would have been a lot lot worse. Thank you so much! And thank you too, to my amazing support crew, I know I have been critical of some aspects of our team choices in this blog, but I couldn’t have asked for a better trio of guys to be there when I was in serious trouble than Sam, Laura and Gemma. Thank you for everything you did for me, getting me edible food and Chai Teas, lifting my spirits and sacrificing your own experience of the event to be there for me, I owe you! – And thank you also for driving the G-Wagon the rest of the way across the states to get it to the finish line, your commitment to the end was un-questionable!

So, there you have it, or at least the story of the race as it happened and how it ended for me. As I write, the film crew guys are busy compiling a huge amount of footage into some sort of logical order which will then be lovingly crafted into our story of the race. We have had some interviews since returning to the UK which helped me process a lot of went on and allowed us to talk through everything. I really hope you will come and watch or download the film when it’s released next year, I will keep you posted! I am also hoping that the film becomes another vehicle to promote the work that CFC do, and I keep coming back to the thoughts that the whole point of why we were there was to raise awareness and funds for children fighting cancer, and hopefully despite the end result of our race itself not being what we wanted, we still achieved our primary objective of building the profile of CFC and getting our work out there.

I was very grateful and more than a little relieved to find out that on returning to the UK and to riding my bike that I still love turning the pedals. By extension, I am guessing that if you can go through all this and still love riding a bike, then it’s going to be something I will do till the day I do finally pedal off this mortal plane and off to the never-ending smooth tarmac with my FTP returned to obscene levels, ha ha. Seriously, I will never stop riding and I hope that both with my day job and with CFC we can continue to help as many people as possible feel the same way about exercise and particularly pushing a small cog to turn some wheels and put a smile on their face as possible.

Thank you, thank you thank you to everyone involved in making the Race Across America even happen for us, to all our sponsors, people who gave their time for free and provided us with help to get us to the start line. There will be challenges to come, both in life and on the bike, but we will overcome and be stronger for them. In the meantime I will continue to cherish what I have, a healthy body, a healthy beautiful wife and daughter, a healthy family and friends to share all these times with and will push the pedals as hard as I can and strive to be the best version of myself I can be.

Thanks again for reading, I promise the next blog won’t be so epic and won’t involve so much emotion….it may still be about cycling though, sorry! Love, Rich x