Sunday, March 2, 2014

To RAAM, Or Not To RAAM?

The 2014 Race Across America route (~3,000 miles)
Long before I began dabbling in randonneuring, I knew of the Race Across America (RAAM), upon which Outside Magazine has conferred the title of  "The World's Toughest Sporting Event."  In its 30-odd years of existence, only 200 or so riders have finished it solo.  About 10 times as many people have summited Mt. Everest.  It's a 3,000-mile bike race that, in its present incarnation, begins in Oceanside, CA and ends in Annapolis, MD.  It involves over 100,000 feet of vertical elevation, including stretches below sea level in the desert and mountain passes approaching 11,000 feet.  Temperatures in the day can reach 100 degrees, and at night can plummet to near freezing.

Racers have about 12 days to complete the journey.  By contrast, Tour De France riders travel about 1,000 miles less, and take twice as long to do it.  (Of course, they are going pretty freakin' fast.)  At root, the question is: can you ride 250 miles a day, on average, for 12 days in a row?  The distance is obviously unfathomable, but the even bigger challenge is the lack of rest.  Last year's winner, Christoph Strasser, apparently was on his bike for about 23 hours and 15 minutes a day, for just under 8 days.  That is, he slept less than an hour a day while riding about 400 miles a day, on average.

There's nothing healthy about it.  Hallucinations and profound confusion are ubiquitous, and there's a medical condition, Shermer's Neck, that exists nowhere else on earth.  It involves certain riders' neck muscles becoming unable to hold their heads up any longer -- they simply give out, and riders' heads flop around like a rag doll's.  Not that this is enough to stop victims, as many times they prop their heads up so that they can continue riding.  (The condition can last a couple of weeks.)



In all, despite extremely demanding qualification standards (for example, riding 400 miles or more in a 24-hour race), each year there's about a 50% DNF ("Did Not Finish") rate.  For a great insight into the challenge and the motivations of those who do undertake it, the award-winning documentary Bicycle Dreams is well worth checking out.

Each summer for the past several years, I've followed the event pretty closely. Live GPS tracking is available online, and certain online forums provide regular insight.  The race is always an object of fascination to me.  RAAM is to competitive ultracycling what Ironman Hawaii is to triathletes.  It's the best of the best, taking on an unfathomably difficult event -- one as difficult mentally as it is physically -- in which there's no prize money and precious little press coverage.  Only a couple of people in the world are able to make a full-time living off of RAAM and other ultracycling events.  For the great majority -- not that there are many to begin with -- it's a labor of love that they undertake in addition to full-time jobs, commitments to family, and the like.

In short: RAAM is the sort of thing that, if you have to ask why people do it, you'll never understand. It's climbing the mountain because the mountain is there.

For as much as I've followed RAAM over the past few years, until recently, I've never really imagined it as something I'd want to do, much less something I'd be qualified to undertake.  It was only in the summer of 2012 that I rode more than 200 miles for the first time, and that was in a brevet, which isn't competitive or time-pressured.  I remember when, in 2011, a close friend told me he was attempting the inaugural 1200k (750-mile) Big Wild Ride in Alaska, and I thought he was utterly nuts.  I'd long loved extremely challenging all-day rides like Mountains of Misery and the Diabolical Double, each of which is 125 miles of insidious mountain climbing, but I'd never reached the end and had any desire to keep going for another 11.5 days.

In the past couple of years, though, I've begun to dabble in longer cycling events, and for whatever reason, I've yet to hit any sort of wall.  In my first 12-hour time trial, in Saratoga, NY in 2012, I was hoping for 220 miles or so, but I wound up with 256, which was a little beyond the old course record (although I took second to Matt Roy, who set a new one).  Last year, I completed my first 600k (375-mile) brevet, a solo effort, and then took on the Big Wild Ride 1200k (750-mile) Grand Randonnée.  Each event was crushingly hard and took absolutely everything I had in me, but I finished each well ahead of the cutoffs.  Most recently, I competed in my first 24-hour time trial at Bike Sebring, and, despite being monumentally undertrained, somehow did well enough to come within shouting distance of an AG course record.  I wound up with 441 miles, which was comfortably more than the 400 required for RAAM Qualification.   I also wound up ahead of several riders who have finished solo RAAM in the last couple of years.

THE PRESSURE OF STRANGE PEERS

I've long observed that the triathlon social scene -- for better or worse, but probably for worse -- has a subtle but distinct pressure to it.  For most (privileged, first-world) people, attempting a triathlon is a worthy ambition.  Those who do it, though, and decide to stick with the hobby, quickly come to find that there's a pressure to go longer.  There seems to be a subtle assumption that everything short of Ironman is merely a prelude to the real challenge.  (For the record, I think this is completely insane.  I have huge amounts of respect for those who work hard at the extremely painful task of going faster at shorter distances.)

But it turns out that doing an Ironman's not the end of it, either.  Sure, it may start as a once-off "bucket list" item, but it often doesn't stay that way.  Crossing the finish line of an Ironman is a singularly intoxicating experience.  There aren't many times in life when we're surrounded by crowds cheering a huge undertaking, and the glow is real.  Regardless how well one does, though, the glow inevitably fades, and one's left with a firm conviction:

I can do better.  I can go faster.  I have more to give.

And there's certainly pressure to try.   The more time one spends training with the tri crowd, the more it becomes one's social scene as well.  That's a great thing in many ways, but it can become a cycle that robs one of perspective.  You come to realize that the conversations are no longer, "you're doing a triathlon?" or even, "You're doing an Ironman?  Crazy."  Instead, they are, "Cool, which ones have you done?  What's up next?"  Twice-a-day workouts become the norm, and the pattern of one's life comes to revolve around an event or two each year.  It's a metaphorical treadmill that's every bit as real as one upon which one might train for a winter marathon, and it's hard to get off without worrying that life will lose its momentum and meaning.

There are at least three problems with this.

First, the endorphin rush of endurance racing is an addictive drug.  The drug may be benign compared to some alternatives, but it's every bit as real.  The first rush of an Ironman finish line is an amazing high, and one wants more.  Years down the road, though, it becomes clear that the thrill of finishing is no longer enough -- the question is whether one is getting better.  If you're disappointed in your performance, you want to avenge it the next year.  If you're thrilled, that's great, but it doesn't last, because you suspect you can do even better the next year, and you start to associate your self-image with being an athlete of a certain caliber.  From that perspective, to cut back is to regress, to fail, to die a little bit.  The shape of one's life begins to coalesce around racing and training -- where you can work, whom you can date or marry, and the rest of it.  The phenomenon of triathlon divorce is very real.

Second, endurance athletes can sometimes become monomaniacal and forget the concept of opportunity cost.  The pursuits take so much time that it's difficult to maintain other hobbies.  And, when one's recreational satisfaction comes primarily from a single pursuit, that pursuit has to be maximized.  Put simply, if a meaningful part of one's happiness is triathlon performance, it's important to keep on the trajectory of performing better.  But the law of diminishing returns applies here: going a couple of hours faster in an Ironman might require doubling one's training time.   It may in fact be true that one would be happier with three hobbies, each of which one does less well than one might with exclusive focus on a single pursuit.  But it can be hard to see that forest from inside the city walls.

Third, there's a telling pattern in my mantra above: I can do better.  I can go faster.  I have more to give.   The common word is "I."  One's performance is inherently a self-regarding thing.  Going faster, going longer, and doing better makes no one but the athlete better off (and the athlete part of it is questionable).  Past a point well short of Ironman, racing triathlons doesn't improve the world; that 8th Ironman probably doesn't provide much additional inspiration for one's sedentary friends to get off the couch.   In fact, it turns out that the field of positive psychology explains why such a pursuit rarely leads to meaningful long-term happiness: helping others is more important to one's happiness than focusing on one's self.  It's important to be healthy, but no reasonable person can argue that training for Ironmans for years on end is necessary to achieve that.

In short, I've come to think that Ironman triathlons are fundamentally self-regarding endeavors.  To be clear, I don't think that, by any stretch, Ironman athletes themselves are generally self-absorbed.  I mean only that -- in my opinion -- for people with other responsibilities, such as commitments to a "civilian" family, Ironman training falls far beyond what's necessary to be a healthy companion and role-model.

ULTRA-DISTANCE BIKE RACING IS EXACTLY THE SAME

Why all the talk about triathlon?  It's what I know.  I signed up for my first Ironman in the fall of 2005, thinking that the race in 2006 would be a one-off, Herculean adventure.  But I did better than I thought I would and wanted to give it another go.  My brother passed away at the the same time, and triathlon became an indispensable part of my coping strategy.  Somehow, in 2013, I found myself having founded a triathlon team, and I was toeing the line at my 9th Ironman.  In all those years, I had trouble finding a relationship that was happy for more than a few months at a stretch, and I found myself thinking of career opportunities and romantic prospects in terms of whether they'd be compatible with training for 20 hours a week.

Over time, it has become clear to me that that isn't the future I want.  It isn't how I was raised.  My parents made huge professional sacrifices in order to spend more time with me and my brother, and when he passed away in 2007, it was obvious that they felt they'd chosen wisely in spending every moment with him that they could.  I want that same relationship with a family, and for me at least, Ironman training is largely incompatible with that vision.  At some point, one has to get off of the treadmill, and I've found something of an alternative in long, meditative cycling events.

As it turns out, though, ultracycling has the capacity to be an "out of the frying pan, and into the fire" proposition.  If one completes 200k and 300k brevets, it's very difficult not to dream of the epic adventure that is a 1200k -- it certainly happened to me.   One can complete a 1200k with much less training than Ironman requires, but if you happen to be on the faster end of things, people notice.  After my strong performance at the Big Wild Ride 1200k, my ride report made its way through the local ultracycling community, and I began finding myself on local rides with people I'd just met telling me that they'd read it, and opining that "RAAM is clearly in your future."  I took it as a compliment, if not very seriously.  But with each success in ultracycling events, the pressure and allure grows.  The ultramarathon bike racing community is a very small one.  Everyone knows one another, and the annual reunion of the most talented people is at Race Across America.  RAAM is the ultra-racing pinnacle, where the best of the best come out to do battle with the impossible.  For those who finish it, there is nothing more to say and nothing more to prove -- you're in the books for all-time, and much as one can always call oneself an "Ironman," one will always be a "Solo RAAM finisher," a finisher of the toughest race in the world.

I'm not going to lie: there's very serious appeal to that notion.  For whatever reason, I seem to be good at this whole ultra-marathon bike racing thing -- I'm competitive with people who have finished solo RAAM multiple times.  Although Sebring intimidated the hell out of me, there's no question that I belonged there, so to speak.  Heck, had I ridden my bike for the last hour, I'd have broken the age group course record.   As a result, I have a "golden ticket" to compete with the best in the world in a sport I'm passionate about.  Such opportunities are vanishingly rare in life.   It's extremely tempting to get swept up in the enthusiasm, and to plan my life around RAAM in 2015, with the idea that it's a "once-and-done, once-in-a-lifetime" adventure that I have to try before life obligations make it impossible.

And yet, and yet... well, that's exactly what I said about Ironman in 2005.  I wanted to do (what then seemed to be) the impossible by finishing that absurd event, figuring that life would make more sense on the other side.  In fact, merely more Ironman races lay on the other side.  RAAM is just the same: many, if not most, of those who finish it come back in successive years to try to improve on their performances.  They're RAAM finishers -- they're somebody, the few, the anointed -- and, from there out, their race results are often described in terms of "Solo RAAM finisher So-And-So."  So few people in the world know what RAAM is, much less appreciate it, that it seems (from my current perspective on the sideline) that it would be difficult to leave that world behind once one's crested the summit.   It would be hard to return to civilian life afterward.

There's also this: entering RAAM is phenomenally expensive -- the effort would cost $20k-$30k, most likely -- and it takes a village.  You're required to have a crew; in practice, you need 6-9 people who will agree to take 12 days off of work to follow you across the country very, very slowly as you gradually become an insane nightmare of a human being.  To the extent I've described Ironman as narcissistic, RAAM turns the volume to 11.  I wouldn't even know how to ask people to do such a thing without feeling like an ass.  And you have to be willing to commit a very serious amount of time to training in the six months leading up to the event.  Not as much as some people like to pretend, but it's a very real undertaking, and I would never dream of entering RAAM without being committed to finishing it and doing well.

SO HERE'S WHERE I AM

Having written far too much already, here are my present thoughts, in no particular order.

(1)  I'm presently interviewing for a couple of jobs that would require substantial travel commitments.  If I get one, it may be difficult to prepare adequately for RAAM.  If things work out that way, it'll be okay; there are plenty of ways to get into trouble without finding reasons for my neck muscles to disintigrate.

(2)  If I don't wind up accepting a position that would make adequate training impossible, I will assess the situation toward the end of 2014.  This year I'm planning another 24-hour race, another 1200k, and very likely an attempt at the Furnace Creek 508 (a 500-mile race in Death Valley in October).  Furnace Creek, which is a "mini-RAAM" with a massive amount of climbing, would give me a much better sense of whether I have a realistic shot at RAAM.  A flat 24-hour race gives one vanishingly little information; Sebring is not in the same galaxy as RAAM and the sheer physical and mental fatigue that it entails.  From everything I know, solo RAAM finishers tend to think that qualification based on a 24-hour race is a dangerously misleading thing.  It's like running a good 10-mile race and thinking oneself qualified to race the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile Bataan march across Death Valley in July.  The 750-mile Big Wild Ride, in which I got 3 hours of sleep in the course of my 67-hour solo voyage, is a little more analogous, but at the end I was in no condition to keep going.

(3)  Regardless how enthusiastic I may be about RAAM, and regardless how well prepared for it I think I could be, I will not consider racing it if I am not utterly confident in my ability to lead a balanced life while preparing for it.  To be specific: if preparing adequately would require real sacrifices at work, or would require that I be anything less than a good and present significant other and friend, I won't do it.  It isn't worth it.  End of story.  There are other ways to have fun.  In fact, if my significant other isn't on board with my making an attempt at RAAM, I won't do it.  It's a team effort or nothing.

(4)  I would only consider entering RAAM if I had a crew of volunteers who are truly enthusiastic about the undertaking.  It requires a massive commitment.  If I have friends who think of it as an appealing adventure, terrific; if not, then not.  Friends should not have to make unwilling sacrifices in order to perform unreasonable favors.  Narcissism must know a limit.

(5)  If all of the above considerations somehow point to "yes," I'll think very seriously about racing in 2015, with the absolute understanding that, no matter what happens, it would be a one-off attempt.  Regardless whether I were to DNF in the first 10 miles (hopefully not) or win the race (*snort*), that would be it.  I want things in life that are incompatible with a lifestyle of perennial RAAM racing.  The idea would be to take the opportunity to toe the line with the best in the world and then to move on without regret, come what may.  And, if everything did line up in such a way that an effort at RAAM happens, I would be damn well prepared, and would head into it ready to put in a performance commensurate with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So that's where I am.  However things play out, I'll continue to think RAAM is a phenomenal undertaking without parallel, and I look forward to following my new friends as they do battle across the country this June.