Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Am I your huckleberry? RAAM 2015

Ever since I qualified for RAAM at Sebring in February, I've been trying to decide whether to take that massive plunge in 2015.  For most of the spring, I thought it was a toss-up; I was taking a wait-and-see approach to my first season of ultracycling, with an eye toward deciding after the year was done.  Then, after my 488-mile performance at the National 24-Hour Challenge, I felt certain that I wanted to give it a go. There were all sorts of reasons why, ranging from the love of a good challenge to support from many friends, some of whom even volunteered for the arduous task of crewing.

As the summer wore into fall, though, I found myself drifting back toward uncertainty as certain realities sank in.  In my ill-fated race in Saratoga, I spoke for a little while with Rob Morlock, a 3-time RAAM finisher with a sub-10-day result to his name.  He volunteered that, toward the end of one of his recent attempts, his saddle sores had gotten so bad that, in places, there was no skin left -- his sit bones were visible through what remained of his flesh.  The more race reports I read, the more I realize that this may be closer to the rule than to the unfortunate exception.  The physical challenge is utterly serious for even the very best athletes.  Marko Baloh, a legend in the sport, lost part of his lung when he got pneumonia.  Christoph Strasser, one of the strongest racers ever, was hospitalized a couple of years ago when he spiked a 105-degree fever in the middle of Kansas.  And, of course, Bob Breedlove was killed in a head-on collision with a car in the middle of the night.  RAAM sounds like it's closer to going off to war than to any event with which I'm familiar.

At the same time, my own race experiences were underlining the gravity of the proposed endeavor.  My lack of heat acclimation in DC's unusually cool summer meant that, at the Mid-Atlantic 24-Hour Challenge in August, I was getting dizzy from dehydration after only 10 hours.  The situation wasn't much better at the Silver State 508, where, despite relatively clement 90-degree temperatures, I found myself throwing up on the side of the road 100 miles in.  The last half of that race was one of the most painful things I've ever endured, from 60-degree temperature swings to an inappropriate bike fit that made every minute agonizing.  Toward the end of that race, I reflected on RAAM -- which is 6 times as long, and which shoots straight across the low desert in the first couple of days before cresting over 10,000' peaks -- and thought, "Not a chance in hell." Of course, the mind rounds off corners, and in retrospect it's easy to remember the accomplishment while the pain seems more like an academic fact than anything real and consequential.

So, here I am, 8 months out from RAAM, facing the big decision: do I take the plunge?  After thinking it over more than I'd like to admit, my answer is: No, at least not next year.  There are many reasons, but here are a few.

(1)  The financial cost.  If you do it on a shoestring budget -- i.e., without an RV, and with neither rider nor crew having much in the way of creature comforts -- the cost would probably come to at least $25,000, and it could well be higher.  Even if I could defray some of that with a full-court fundraising campaign, it still would still be a monumentally expensive undertaking for someone who works for the government.  There are many reasons why RAAM competitors skew older, but I think one of them is that younger people often can't afford it.  I'm not sure I can, and I'm not willing to take on huge amounts of debt for the sake of a single bike race.  There are shorter events that provide rewarding challenges without threatening insolvency.  And, anyway, since when is a 500-mile or 24-hour race considered too short?

(2)  The social cost.  There's no avoiding the fact that, to race 3,000 miles in June, you really ought to be riding something close to 10,000 miles in the 8 months leading up to that point.  We're talking 300 miles a week, and often quite a bit more, week in and week out.  That is serious business for someone with a demanding full-time job, a relationship, and aspirations of reading the occasional book.  The event would consume more than half of my vacation time for the year, and more than all of my budget.  I'm not sure any event is worth living like a hermit for the rest of a year.

(3)  The professional cost.  I'm starting a new job with the United States Attorney's Office next week, and by all accounts it is a more intense place than the one I'm leaving.  I'm excited about the opportunity to be a "real lawyer" with all that that entails, but it will be a pretty steep learning curve, and there will be times when it will displace workouts or races.  Given RAAM's monumental difficulty even for those who are ideally prepared, it seems exceedingly irresponsible to commit to racing it at the same time that I'm trying to get my feet underneath me in a new, demanding position.

(4)  FOMO is B.S.  In the last year, I've stumbled across a new, insidious acronym: FOMO, or "fear of missing out."  It's up there with "YOLO" in terms of things that no one above age 12 should ever write or say, but there is a point to it: People sign up for things that their friends are doing because they think they might otherwise regret not having been there.  There's a significant element of that with RAAM; it's the Kona of ultracycling, and many of my friends and competitors will be there.  But, the thing about fear of missing out is that it's unavoidable.  If you can't do everything in life -- and no one can -- you're always missing out on something, and it's only a question of prioritizing things in the right way.  There's certainly a part of me that will find it hard to sit on the sideline for RAAM, but I'd also find it hard not to do all of the other things in life that RAAM would force aside.  "Fear of missing out" isn't enough: I have to be utterly certain that I want to do RAAM for its own sake, and I'm not there right now.  Sometimes you just have to say no to things.

I've been mulling over this tentative conclusion for the last couple of weeks, and it's only getting stronger.  It's the right call for me, at least right now.  In many ways, I'm like the first-year triathlete who's done reasonably well at a couple of sprint triathlons, and who's thinking of signing up for an Ironman the next year.  I've always told such athletes that there's no rush, and that developing their chops at the shorter distances is an admirable and worthwhile things to do -- it's not "Ironman or irrelevance."  In this instance, I'm taking my own advice, and I'm looking forward to everything that life will have to offer in 2015.