Race Across America (RAAM) 2010

It’s time to put some some thoughts to paper on an event I did in 2010 that forever changed my ideas about extreme endurance sports.  I spent the year traveling 250,000 miles around the world on business with many trips to India.  In Bangalore, I was introduced to Samim (Sam) Rizvi, India’s top endurance athlete and their version of Lance Armstrong.

Getting There
With only three months to prepare, my employer asked me to lead the sponsorship of Sam Rizvi for the Race Across America (RAAM), a grueling, nearly non-stop, 3,000-mile bicycle race across America.  Many of the participants ride in well-organized teams but the real race is with the few over-the-top adrenaline junkies who choose to do this race solo.  There are numerous ways to qualify for RAAM as a solo rider.  Sam was the first person from India to qualify for RAAM in its 29-year history by riding 700 km in 24 hrs. on the streets in and around Bangalore.  That alone is a fairly remarkable accomplishment, given the brutal conditions of the roads in India.  Here’s a taste of what it was like:

Sam believed he had a chance to win, even though no rookie has ever won at RAAM.   Just about everyone who enters RAAM takes a full year to prepare.  Having only qualified in Feb., Sam had less than four months to prepare.  I realized immediately that Sam needed a second bike.  Nobody does RAAM with only one bike and no back-up.  He had already logged over 400,000 km on his old Specialized bike, so I bought him a brand new Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL2, the perfect bike for long hauls.  It helped that I live in Morgan Hill, CA where Specialized is headquartered.  I was able to land a good deal on the new bike through my local bike shop.  But after this successful equipment purchase, every detail from here on out became a mind-boggling set of challenges.

The Crew
The skeleton crew Sam had assembled in India had never been to the U.S., including Sam.  I was worried about diet and nutrition from the start.  But the team assured me they had worked out a “secret formula” to keep Sam properly fueled and hydrated.  Sam had been cycling incredible distances in India for many years, so I figured he had a system all worked out.  Besides, I was too busy traveling all over the world with my job, I didn’t have time to analyze Sam’s nutrition needs. I would have to trust them.  And the first problem was just getting visas for the team.  My employer helped with that process as well, but in the end, one crew member–Sam’s  driver for the past 13 years–was denied a visa.  This would be a misfortune that would come back to haunt us.  Only Sam and two others were granted a visa.  I scrambled to find my own crew from the U.S. but could not find anyone who could commit the time.

Meanwhile, we proceeded to launch our fledgling effort with all the fanfare of a bid for the Tour de France.  We called a press conference in Bangalore and with TV cameras rolling, we unveiled our plan to win the Race Across America.  I was named the resident “expert” since I was doing an ironman ten days after RAAM.  Don’t know what that has to do with a trans-continental bike race, but to the masses in India, I guess I looked like a credible American athlete.  Nobody else cared that two to three weeks before RAAM, I should have been peaking in my own training.  Instead, I would spend my peak training days huddled in a van traveling under 20 mph chasing another man on a bicycle for 3,000 miles.

Sam and his crew showed up in Oceanside, CA ten days before for the race.  Ronnie Sehgal was officially crew chief but was woefully unprepared.  No check lists, no crew assignments, no plan.  Arjun Venugopal had been Sam’s masseure, physiotherapist and nutritionist for several years.   Suzanne Allen was Sam’s old friend who joined us from Seattle, WA.  She was an experienced mountain guide so I figured she knew a little something about discipline, endurance and the importance of being organized.  Less than 24 hours before the race started, I spoke with a movie producer who agreed to put a cameraman in our support van to make a film about Sam’s epic journey.  Our cameraman, Peter Levermann, turned out to be an invaluable crew member.  He had crewed for RAAM before.  But it’s not a good sign when the most experienced crew member is your videographer and a total stranger to everyone. We had no nutritionist, no team doctor (nobody to administer an IV), and no mechanic.  How we could show up at the start of a 3,000-mile bicycle odyssey without one crew member having ever changed a tubeless tire is beyond me.  I’ve changed many flats, but I’ve always used clinchers.  By all accounts, we had the smallest crew in the entire race.  This was going to be a real adventure.

Getting Started
I spent the few days before leaving home getting the primary support van outfitted with some technology.  I bought a GPS system, outdoor speakers for the PA system so we could talk to Sam from inside the vehicle, a night vision windshield mounted video camera, and wifi cards for remote internet access so I could stream live video to India over WebEx.  I drove one of the crew vans from my home in northern California and met the crew five days before race day in Oceanside.  We spent the last few days before the race just getting to know each other better.  We ate meals together, asked about each other’s background, and joked around a lot.  But it would have been difficult to assemble a more motley crew.

The night before the race, we were still scrambling for supplies.  I went to pick up Sam’s cycling gear which we had printed locally with sponsor logos while Sam and his crew went to the grocery store for final supplies.  It wasn’t until the morning of the race as we were packing the vans that I realized what they had planned for Sam’s nutrition.  To my shock and horror, they had purchased cases of ginseng tea, lemonade, soda, Gatorade and other bottled drinks which contained absolutely no nutritional value.  There was very little food and almost nothing with protein and carbs.  I knew we had serious problem before we even started.

At the start line, our team had dispersed in every direction, each person following their own interests.  We were not huddled together, taking stock of last minute preparations, checking and double-checking our lists.  Then, out of nowhere, they announced Sam Rizvi as the next racer.  We thought he had been placed at the back of the pack when in fact he was at the front of the list.  In the next moment, Sam was off, and the crew was left fumbling around at the start looking for each other.  When we reached our van, we immediately realized we had missed our own start time.  I took the first turn as driver of the primary support vehicle since I was the only one who had any idea where we were.  Two of our drivers had never even driven on the right side of the road before.

Within the first mile of our journey, Arjun announced he was solely focused on providing food and drinks to Sam, asking us not to bother him with any other duties.  Seriously, did he just say that?  My whole approach to crewing is that every team member needs to be absolutey willing to do anything it takes to make the team successful.  So it did not sit well with me that one team member in the first mile was already announcing he was not willing to man up.

The Race

Sam took the first 24 hrs. like a real pro but he did it on pure adrenaline and desire as he was at a serious nutrition deficit right from the start.  Arjun’s secret sauce for nutrition amounted to nothing more than alternating ice water with tea, gatorade, juice, or some combination, as if combining zero nutrition with more zero nutrition would amount to something useful.  I knew we needed a real nutrition plan as soon as possible, but once you within a few hours outside of the Los Angeles areas, the next place to stop for real supplies is Flagstaff, AZ.  I knew Sam’s body would start feeding on itself before we could get some proper nutrtion, and then I thought it might be too late to recover.

Sam at 24 hours:

We stopped at a few rendezvous points over the first 24 hours and checked out our competition.  Everyone else had meticulously organized crew vans.  Many had custom compartments for storage.  Everything was  clearly labeled.  Some crews claimed to have two of everything, just in case.  Our van was like an overstuffed janitor’s closet that had been stocked by throwing everything onto a warehouse shopping cart.  We had four captains chairs behind the driver–comfortable for passengers but awful for storage.

Day 2 — Somewhere in Arizona

How Not To Do RAAM
Over the first three days, we put ourselves through a comedy of errors we could not possibly make up if we tried.

In Prescott, AZ, I finally found a decent bike shop and bought out their entire supply of Hammer products, mostly gels and Perpetuem.  We also found a GNC store at a mall and bought everything we could think of for energy and recovery.  Now I had some proper nutrition products, but I also knew Sam had never tried this stuff before and he has a sensitive stomach.  I had no idea if he could handle it.  It also became clear that I was the only person who knew anything about nutrition.  Nobody, least of all our official nutritionist, seemed to grasp the idea that Sam had to ingest at least 200 calories an hour just to get by, 40o calories to stay on top of his game.  We were nowhere close.  It was truly amazing he was still going at all.

When we left Flagstaff, AZ, I suggested to Sam that he put his aero helmet on for the long, fast descent off the mountain.  At first, he thought it would be too windy for an aero helmet, but as he started down the mountain, he decided to put it on.  I was sitting in the passenger side when Sam flagged us down.  But for some reason, Ronnie decided to pull ahead of Sam to stop.  As he applied the brakes, Sam rode straight into the back of the van, crashing his bike.  From the outside mirror, I saw Sam flying across the road in a tangled heap.  In a panic, Ronnie forgot to put the van in park and just turned off the key.  We came to a rolling stop.  I jumped out of the van and sprinted back to find Sam motionless on the freeway, still clipped in to his bike on one side.  For a moment, I thought we had killed our rider.  Sam had twisted his knee but after a few minutes he wanted to get back on his bike and continue riding.  Once back in the van after a long, awkward silence, I announced to the crew that I had two new rules.  1.  Never drive in front of the rider.  2.  Do not take pictures with your camera while driving the van.  I could not believe I actually had to make such rules.  And I could not believe our own crew chief had forced our rider to crash.  I kept thinking if only Sam’s trusted driver had been able to get a visa, this would not have happened.  Here’s a video I took just after the crash:

Somewhere deep in the dessert of Utah, I drove ahead to find a hotel room to crash for a few hours.  Just as I was about to check in to a hotel, the primary support van called me to say they had driven off the road.  They were stuck in a ditch and Sam could not ride ahead because we were in evening hours when rider and support vehicle must remain together.  So I drove 100 miles back to help drag the van out of the ditch, only to get a call when I was 20 miles away to be told someone had pulled them out of the ditch.  80 miles back to my hotel, and I crashed.

A few hours later, I learned the Sam had ridden through the night in hail and a thunderstorm but had no rain gear.  No rain gear!?  How is that possible?  He came all the way from India, spent ten days in Oceanside and nobody thought to pick up any rain gear?  It never occurred to me that he would not have something as basic as proper rain gear.  But this was also something that would have to wait until we reached a city where we could buy something appropriate.  In the meantime, we found Arjun wrapping Sam’s legs and face in plastic grocery bags.  We had come this far only to find ourselves wrapping our rider in plastic grocery bags.  If he was pulled over on the highway, any cop would have thought he was some kind of homeless man stealing a bike.

To make matters worse, Ronnie had decided to drive for about 16 hours straight.  I had told everyone they are each responsible for making time to sleep.  Ronnie had blown it.  Now he was going to be useless for a while, but I had to send him ahead to pick up some supplies.  Nine hours later we still didn’t know where Ronnie was, and it appeared he didn’t know, either.  In his catatonic state, he had gotten himself lost and didn’t even know where he was to ask directions.

At another pit stop in Utah, a kind German team member offered to give Sam a massage.  He had his own massage table and set up shop in a gas station parking lot for us.  After receiving this massage, Sam realized Arjun had no idea what he was doing with massage.  He told Arjun to take some lessons when they returned to India.  Then, as Suzanne pulled the van out of the rest area, she was immediately stopped by race officials and given a 15-min. penalty for not having her lights on.  This is a very common penalty, but still so disheartening to pull right out of a rest stop with a penalty.

Pit stops had become nothing more than organized chaos.  You would think the first order of business would be to take care of the rider.  But our Indian contingent would often get out of the vehicle and just wander off in different directions, taking pictures of their first time in the U.S. or otherwise wander about with no real purpose.  They joke in India that IST stands for India Stretchable Time (vs. India Standard Time).  It refers to a country of over 1 billion people with no sense of urgency whatsoever.  Pit stops were no different.  It didn’t seem to matter how long we stopped, we would eventually get back on the road.  The Indians seemed to lose the entire concept that we were in the middle of a race.  We had been reduced to nothing more than a yard sale moving down the road.

Making the decision to reach Durango:

For the last stretch to Durango, TX, I decided to count calories.  Sam consumed a total of less than 400 calories six hours.  We reached Durango with very little time to spare before the cut-off.  But Sam had gone nearly three days with very little rest and almost no real nutition, and he had developed a nasty cough and congestion from exposure.  After crashing at a hotel, we tried to get back on the road in the middle of the night.  But Sam’s condition had deteriorated so badly, he was barely moving at 7 mph.  After several roadside attempts to re-group, we pulled Sam from the race.  In the interest of his own safety, he finally succumbed to seeing a doctor.  The doctor at the local hospital confirmed Sam had contracted influenza Type A pneumonia and could not continue with the race.   He had made it 1/3 of the way across America but there was nothing left in the tank.  It was the end of the road.

Closing Thoughts
I learned a ton about crewing for an endurance event, mostly by doing everything wrong.  It’s difficult to imagine how we could have possibly finished the race.  We only made it three days and had planned on 10 -12 days.  But after just three days we were completely wiped out.  Our vans looked like a cluster bomb had gone off in them, tempers and personality differences flared, and we all felt a strong sense of diminishing returns.  I can’t think of one single thing we did right.  They say a rider cannot win RAAM on his own, but the crew can definitely bring a team to a grinding halt.  Yes, I would do it again, but I would want to be crew chief and have a strong vote on who is on the crew.  There are countless things I would do differently next time, and I would want to believe we had a fair chance of actually winning.

We spent a couple days in Durango after dropping out just to let Sam rest while the rest of us slept and recovered from our ordeal.  Arjun then took off for Las Vegas where he hoped to win big.  Nobody ever heard from him again.  Sam and Ronnie decided to drive the remaining distance to the finish line in Annapolis, Maryland.  Months later they had a falling out and parted ways.  Suzanne and Peter went home and went on with their lives.  I’m fairly certain I’m the only one who has kept in touch with everyone (except Arjun).  Just goes to show you what a circus act we pulled together for this event.  Even in retrospect, I am disappointed to say I did not enjoy it,  but I’m still grateful for the experience.  There is always more to learn more from failure than success.

Sam is registered to race again this year at RAAM, but I heard his new team recently fell apart.  Unfortunate, but it’s no surprise to me.  I still hope he gets his chance.

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Ironman Couer d’Alene

My ironman story is more about the journey than the race itself, but I knew it was going to be that way when I started training seven months ago.  I just never could have imagined the incredible series of events that would transpire once I put my plan into motion.  It seems the longer and harder the race, the more amazing the serendipities that unfold along the way.

As soon as I paid $550 online to register for my first ironman, I took a new job at my company.  It would mean traveling 170,000 miles over the next six months to China, Brazil, Bahrain, and frequent trips to India.  First thing I did was re-build my road bike to the exact same specs as my tri bike and ship it to India with my trainer so I could spin in my hotel room on business trips–riding outdoors is a death wish in India.  I had not anticipated that FedEx would lead me astray by shipping my bike to a port of entry not approved for bikes.  And being new to India, I had not planned on paying a $1,200 bribe to get my bike out of customs.  In the U.S., we call that extortion.  In India, it’s business as usual.

Just a couple months into my training, my boss asked me to manage the company’s sponsorship of the first person from India to qualify and race in the Race Across America (RAAM).  I eagerly took up the challenge and was quickly introduced to Samim Rizvi, India’s #1 endurance athlete and professional cyclist.  We quickly became friends, and in short order I found myself on a training ride with Samim, riding 50 miles near the town of Mysore, India in the middle of the night, our crew van following closely behind us as we dodged motorcycles, cows and pedestrians while negotiating India’s giant speed bumps.

Sam Rizvi and me after a training ride before the RAAM start.

The next thing I knew I was asked to join the crew for RAAM and support Samim in his bid to be the first Indian to complete the famously difficult race.  I joined the rest of the rookie crew in Oceanside, CA just three weeks before my own ironman race and found myself driving 20 mph across the United States in a van, following a deeply committed athlete from India on his bike.  That sort of shot the end of my ironman training in the ass, but Samim would eventually contract pneumonia and pull out of RAAM in Durango, Colorado.  I flew home just three days before leaving for Couer d’Alene.

With my training partners on Sat. testing out the frigid water.

I had several friends doing CDA with me, but unlike ultramarathons, ironman is a very solitary endeavor.  You do most of the training alone and you’re pretty much alone the entire race.  So finding some familiar faces in Couer d’Alene made the pre-race jitters a little easier to deal with as we all did our best to figure out what to do with the five gear bags we were given, get mentally prepared for a very cold swim and a very hot run, and try to get some rest before the big day.  By this time I had convinced myself I was well-prepared, despite my erratic training schedule, traveling overseas 60% of my time, and crewing for RAAM when I should have been putting in my longest miles.

Swim
There is nothing in the pool that can prepare you for a mass swim start with 2,600 highly trained athletes.  It was my first mass start and I had toyed with numerous strategies.  Start a full 10 minutes after everyone—but I would probably get lapped on the second loop.  Beat anyone senseless who even touches me—but there are bigger guys than me out there.  I decided to start way to the right of the buoys at the far end of the beach.  Nice idea except that it seemed half the field had adopted the same strategy.  An ironman swim is not for the timid swimmer.  I had my goggles kicked off once, and as I tried to maneuver through a sea of wetsuits, I kept noticing someone’s arm was coming far too close to me.  Then I realized it was my own arm! If I were swimming alone, I think I may have managed 1:20 on the swim, but I emerged in 1:31 and told myself to just get on with it.  I had lost only 10 minutes.

T1
I made my way to T1 where a young boy quickly found bag #1648 and sent me to the changing tent.  Having taken the plunge a month earlier and shaved my legs as smooth as a baby’s bottom, I slipped out of my wetsuit with ease and fumbled through my transition bag as if I were inspecting the content for the first time.  By the time I had scampered out of the transition area with my bike, eight full minutes had gone by.  I had planned on five minutes.

Bike
I had planned to drive the bike course the day before with my friends but we all ran out of time so I wasn’t sure what to expect on the course.  The first 40 miles went quite well.  I was comfortable, riding with ease and well ahead of plan.  Then it started to warm up.  I knew the forecast called for 80 degree temps, but somehow I thought I could manage it on the bike.  By the time I started the second loop, I could feel all my energy being drained by the heat and there was nothing I could do about it.

Five hours into my race, I told myself I needed to abandon my 11:59 goal time and just try to finish.  It took me at least an hour more on the bike to process the fact that it was going to be a much longer day than I had planned.  I always knew I could finish, but after everything I had been through to get to this point, somehow just finishing didn’t seem good enough.  I’m glad sound judgment prevailed on this day.  I thought about my family who knew I had gone to the hospital before from a severe bonk.  I thought about my youngest sister Julie who suffers from MS.  I thought about the many people who were supporting me through my fund-raising drive for the National MS Society.  I had to finish.

T2
By the time I reached T2 I was a mess, completely wiped out from the heat and ready to be finished.  I wasn’t even sure how long the bike had taken me but it didn’t really matter anymore.  Someone grabbed my bike for me and I headed to the transition area to get my run bag, having no idea how I was ever going to run a marathon.  Eight minutes later, I stepped out of the changing tent and decided to just start walking.

Run
I walked the entire first mile past all the spectators and thought this just sucks.  I was actually calculating how long it would take me if I walked the entire marathon.  I had never even thought about that before and here I was trying to figure out what it would take just to make the cutoff.  Wow, what a humbling thought.  Before I reached the first turnaround, I decided to just take it easy and enjoy the rest of the day.  It’s a nice thought, except that by this time I had already been on the course for over 10 hours and now I was seriously tired.  I managed the first half of the run in exactly three hours and told myself if I could run a negative split, I would finish in under 15 hours.  Instantly, that was my new goal.  15:01 sounds about an hour longer than 14:59.

Heading out for the turnaround on the second loop, the sun was setting.  That meant it was finally beginning to cool down.  At the final turnaround, I finally felt like I could run again, and it felt great to have something left in the tank after nearly 14 hours.

There isn’t anything in racing quite like an Ironman finish.  Making the last turn, I could see the finish line for about a half mile.  The streets were lined with people screaming, “you are an Ironman!”  The last 200 yards through the grandstands and finish chute is something I’ll never forget.  The grandstands were packed with people screaming my name, waving, reaching out to give me a high five.   It’s pretty special.  I finished in 14:56 and felt great crossing the finish.  My time was nowhere near what I had hoped, but the time didn’t even matter anymore.

Final Thoughts
Completing an ironman was a lifetime goal for me, not like any other event I have ever done.  It was my Everest, and I had dreamed about doing one for at least 20 years.  Now that I’ve done it, I know I’m capable of performing much better next time, so I’m sure I’ll do another one.  I don’t think I’ll be signing up for my next one right away.  There are just so many other events I want to do and I’ll still be traveling a lot over the next year.  There’s also something in me that tells me I can go even farther than an ironman and I know I will probably push that boundary.  I think most people can go about twice as far as they think they can.

I’m very grateful for all the support I received from so many people who supported my fund-raising drive for the National MS Society.  I try to pick one race a year to support a good cause.  This year, I raised over $13,000 through my ironman race, bringing my total to over $22,000 since I started this drive a year ago.  I know it gives my sister some comfort to know I’m doing this in her honor, and I’ve been deeply touched by the many stories I hear from donors who have told me about their own battle with MS or about people in their lives affected by MS.   I feel blessed to have my health just to have the opportunity to take on the ironman challenge but at the end of the day, an ironman is just a race.  I hope I’m making a small difference through my effort for those who suffer the most.