Race Across AMerica (RAAM)

Camel's Heart

RAAM Open Races

Ohio 1991
New York 1990
New York 1991
Illinois 1993
North Texas 1994
Missouri 1995


by Roger S. Nelson

    This was the last RAAM qualifier I ever tried.  I guess I worked most of it out of my system, but  I have many fond memories of them even though I burned out.  I didn't want to give up biking, I just found other ways to enjoy it.  Sometimes I find myself thinking about doing another qualifier and I just have to slap myself and remind myself of the price one pays to do them.

    I really didn't need to do this, I qualified for RAAM in 1994 in Texas, but I thought it would be good training and fun and at this time I still planned on riding in RAAM.

    In 1996 I started doing self supported touring.  I rode up to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan and back in two weeks, by myself, camping in the woods, and I wrote my first book using this trip as background.  I also got a tandem bike and started riding in groups more.  I've taken two more trips in Michigan, and another on horseback.  I hope to do a canoe trip, and try mountain biking.

   St. Louis.... Gateway to the West. "What a great place to start a bike ride'", I thought as I gazed at the Arch. In the museum below, I found out it takes 40 minutes to make a round trip in the little cars that go to the observation deck in the top of it. I wondered how long it would take to ride to the top on a mountain bike.

    BAM (Bike Across Missouri) starts in a suburb of St. Louis, Chesterfield, at the Doubletree Hotel. From there it heads westward, crossing the Missouri River twice, to a suburb of Kansas City, Grain Valley. The 575 mile round trip starts on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend and must be completed in 63 hours. I've always wanted to do BAM, and this year when they made it a RAAM (Race Across AMerica) qualifier, I couldn't pass up the temptation. About a hundred riders showed up to do it, but only about a dozen for the RAAM qualifier. Everyone did the same route, but the RAAM qualifier riders started an hour later. 

    This route was unusual in that it's the only RAAM qualifier I've done that was out and back. This means that when you get near the halfway point you got to see some of the other riders as they pass you going the other way.

    It wasn't easy getting a crew over Labor Day. For a long time I just had my nephew, Jeremy, lined up. Jeremy is 16 and just got his drivers license this spring. I met Lisa while crewing for RAAM this summer. She is working on her master's degree in nutrition and needed data for her Master’s thesis. Things didn't work out for her during RAAM, and I told her I would be happy to eat for her if she would crew for me. When I got back from RAAM, there was a message for me to call her, and so I signed her up. In addition, she was bringing Ted, her fiancée. I paid her air fare from Dallas and she was well worth it. Ted has a sister who works for American Airlines and he was able to get a standby flight for free and he was well worth it, too! (Did I say that right?) Finally, just the day before I left for BAM, I managed to bribe a friend, John, with one of my old bikes.

    Some people who live in Missouri call it "Misery", humid and in the 90's and 100's all the time. I came prepared for this kind of weather, but the day of the race the humidity and temperature dropped and I thought the weather was wonderful.

    When I started following the yellow arrows out of the Doubletree parking lot at 7:30 am, I noticed right away it was a teensy bit (yeah, right) less level than the Lansing, Michigan, area where I live. Then, after about 12 miles, we started hitting the really steep hills. I crawled up these using a 39x26 and then blasted back down at 45+ mph. OK, so maybe I was using my brakes a little.

    In addition to a helmet on these rides, I strongly recommend glasses. If you hit a bee at 45 mph, it really stings!

    Crews could visit you only at two points along the way before the 82 mile mark. I gambled (sort of) that I wouldn't have a flat. My frame pump was at home and I didn't have patches or a spare, but there was neutral sag support along the way, so I wasn't completely alone. I had two tall water bottles with Pro-Optimizer in one and Gatorade in the other. I thought I’d see my crew after about 25 miles, but when they didn’t show, I regretted not using my Camel Bak. I was glad it wasn't hotter than it was glass of lemonadeor I would have been toast. Finally, when I got to Washington at about 40 miles, I stopped at a gas station and got some water. Right after that my crew showed up. I should have tried that sooner!

    I had never used a Camel Bak before this ride. Since it holds 70 ounces of drink, I thought it would help on training rides where I don’t have a crew to refill bottles. I got one before the race even though I planned on using the lighter weight bottles for climbing hills. However, I found it easier to climb with the weight on my back than on my bike and drinking was a lot easier. No wonder they are so popular.

    I brought a scale along so Lisa could check if I was getting dehydrated or not. She brought along an electronic blood sugar tester to see if I was eating enough or not. She had a little thing-a-ma-bob which she put against one of my fingers and I'd feel a little bump. Then she'd squeeze a tiny drop of blood from my finger onto an electronic test strip which plugged into the monitor. A minute later it would read out my blood sugar level. It was really slick.

   At the first check point my blood sugar was only 72. Normal is 120. I probably didn’t eat enough the day before the race and started out low. Also, after that first 40 miles with only two water bottles, I was already dehydrated. So I loaded up the Camel Bak with 64 ounces of Gatorade and drank the whole thing within 20 miles. Then I tried stronger solutions, like Gatorade with a scoop or two of Pro-Optimizer in it. My blood sugar started rising.

    When I rode RAGBRAI (a tour across Iowa) in 1993 we had to climb some steep hills when we got near the Mississippi. They call them bluffs in Iowa. Most of the time you'd ride along the ridge and every once in a while you'd dip down in the valley and climb up the next ridge. Sometimes you ride along in the valley. I think there was only about 25 miles of these climbs in the whole seven days of RAGBRAI, and a lot of people just walked up the steepest parts. So after 50 miles of these hills I was thinking that things ought to start leveling out soon. Wrong! After 90 miles of these hills with the temperature near the 90 mark, my legs were sufficiently rubberized that at one hill I finally got of the bike, took off my cleats and socked it to the top. These hills were making riding up the Arch look easy! After that I changed to my touring bike - the one with the 26 tooth granny gear.

    I kept moving down the road, enjoying seeing corn like plants and other oddities that I've only seen in Missouri. I wished I had my camera, but I was racing, not touring.

    After crossing the Missouri River I was actually able to cruise along at 20+ mph for a dozen miles or so of flat riding. I was hoping that we had finally crossed all those hills and it would be flat all the way to Kansas City. Wrong! The "show me" state was not done showing me hills. I think there was one other fairly flat place along the way to K.C., but the rest of it was anything but.

    Speaking of butts, that other flat place had cracks in the pavement that were murder on butts. And hands. And feet. And on a few roads I think the asphalt was laid down with a manure spreader and then smoothed over with a road grader. (Has anyone heard the term "steam roller" here?) Sometimes I was really taking a beating.  Most of the roads in Missouri were OK, but one tends to remember the bad ones.

    A lot of the roads had practically no shoulder so the Dodge Caravan I rented couldn’t pull completely off when we stopped. To make things worse, the left headlight burned out (it was working when we left), so my crew drove closer to the center line at night so the right light would shine on the road for me. Compared to other RAAM qualifiers (and RAAM itself), I felt uncomfortable about blocking traffic.

    Missouri roads usually have a letter designation instead of a name or route number. I was wondering if tour could be planned down "R" and then down "AA" and then down "M". That would be a real "RAAM" ride.

    Just about the time it was getting dark we came to a checkpoint where Jeremy was waiting for us. He hoped I had a spare key for the other rental car (a Chevy Corsica) because he just locked his key inside. car keysNope, they only give you one set. Ted told him to call the cops and they'd open it for him while we went on down the road. Jeremy was upset but I thought it was really funny. I mean, it's not like a transmission blew or something. Ted, the unofficial crew captain, handled that well. John stayed with Jeremy and a locksmith eventually opened it for $10.00. After that they were afraid to lock the car anymore!

    After dark it cooled off to about 65 degrees which was great! I was wide awake at night (it makes a difference when someone is looking after your blood sugar) but just for the fun of it, I had my crew play tapes I made especially for these races. Soon I was waltzing up sugar plum hills to Tchaikowsky, hoop-de-dooing to Frankie Yankovic, cruising with Star Trek, dreaming those good old dreams with Karen Carpenter, twisting those cranks with Chubby Checker and, well you get the picture. After a lot of hard riding, I finally passed three riders, the only ones I passed on the road all day. They told me they loved my music.crow with CD One guy said he would have been asleep on the road hours ago except for it. I saw one woman riding one handed waving her other hand like she was conducting. I wasn't riding with these people, they were in the area and close enough to hear it. I was having a ball riding hard and felt good that others were sharing my fun. These other riders were not RAAM riders, but were self supporting. Believe me, I have a lot of respect for them.

    At the next checkpoint my blood sugar had gone down to 87 (from all that fun). I took a 15 minute Pro-Optimizer break to get it back up and was planning to eat more and not pass so many riders. It was only about 60 miles to the halfway point, Grain Valley.

    Down the road a few miles I got the hiccups. At first I just rode easy and tried to ride through them, but they got worse. I decided to take a second 15 minute break. They went away almost immediately and I was back "on the road again" (Willie Nelson).

    Later, the hiccups came back again, so I took a third 15 minute break before going where I wanted to go (the Mamas and Papas).

    Then they came back again. I was starting to get annoyed by this since I had used 45 minutes even though I wasn’t tired and couldn’t sleep.  I had hoped to make it to the halfway point before 24 hours, and now I wasn't going to make it. The hiccuping was killing my hill climbing. This time I lay down for an hour and did sleep a little. It was daylight when I got up. My stomach had rumbled and grumbled and I felt a lot better and figured I was done with those darn hiccups. Wrong!

    Just before we got to Grain Valley they came back again and I hiccuped my way to the turn around point where I was surprised to learn that I was in the middle of the pack of BAM riders. All this time I thought I was near the back. I must have passed them at checkpoints, I sure didn't pass them on the road. Only one RAAM rider was behind me.

    When I couldn’t release my shoe from a pedal I thought I had a loose cleat, but discovered instead that the pedal broke. While John replaced the pedal, I showered and changed clothes. When I got done the bike was fixed and my hiccups were gone so I started following the red arrows back.

    Just before the next checkpoint I got the hiccups again on a big hill and I had to stop and rest. Half an hour later, without the hiccups, the hill was actually pretty easy. I took my time coming into Higginsville but by the time I got to McDonald's I had the hiccups pretty bad, so I went in for some solid food. Until now I had been on a liquid regimen. The hiccups went away, but came back again even before I left McDonald's. It was only a mile or so to the checkpoint.

    The Higginsville checkpoint was a barn-like building where I made a derailleur adjustment to my bike and then laid down on the smooth cement floor. Ted and Lisa couldn't understand why I didn't go in the air conditioned van since it was so hot out. But I was comfortable and the cold cement felt good and I could stretch out better than in the van and basically I was too tired to crawl over to the van to do all over again what I was already doing. While I was resting Lisa came over and checked my blood sugar. 137 - well fed. They even brought me a pillow and gave me a foot massage. While I lay there hiccuping, someone took a snapshot of me. I heard someone say something about "dirty pool". I rested quite a while until I was sure I had recovered from the hiccups. Since it was in the 90’s, my plan was to ride easy to escape the heat and also avoid the hiccups. I started using my ticket to ride (Karen Carpenter).

    After an hour or so, Ted’s voice came over the speaker, ‘if you keep going at your current pace you will make it to the end by 7:30 am.’

    ‘Well, whoopee for me,’ I said sarcastically. I knew he was trying to encourage me and I wanted so say something nicer, but things just don't always come out right when you're tired.  My brain was hiccuping. Crews shouldn’t figure out ending times for a racer. I knew from experience that I was unlikely to finish that soon and, in fact, I was in danger of not even finishing.

    After 25 miles of very easy riding, the hiccups started again. I wore a wireless microphone so I could talk to my crew. Pinning the mic on the inside of my shirt reduced wind noise considerably, but my crew could also hear me hiccuping. Lisa made a remark about me sounding like an obscene phone call.

    I made it the last 5 miles to the next checkpoint in Marshall and then rested in the van. Blood sugar was 123. The air conditioning was on high and I was shivering a little by the time I got out.

    I left Marshall riding very easy, but only eight miles down the road I started hiccuping again. I asked Ted and Lisa to go into the next town and get some Pepto-Bismol. I had already tried Rolaids. In desperation I took a good chug of it and lay down. No results. This time the hiccups didn't even leave until after I had gone to sleep.

    I could see a pattern developing. Each time I got the hiccups, they got worse and it took a longer rest to get rid of them.  It was hard enough to ride on the level with the hiccups and the worst hills (200 miles of them) were still ahead. I couldn't picture myself climbing them with hiccups.  man with belly acheBeing a potential rocket scientist, I decided to bag it. I had tried my best, and if there was any way I could have finished the ride, even with the hiccups, I would have.  The hiccups were wearing me out far worse than the biking, and even though I tried a lot of different things to beat them, I had to face reality. 

    I never had the hiccups on one of these rides before and I’m not sure what started them. Maybe it was all that Gatorade. Next time I’m going to use Powerade which seems more palatable to me and also has about 30% more calories.

    With 28,000 feet of climbing, most of it quite steep, this may be the toughest ride I've done. In fact, only two RAAM riders even finished, so it has the highest drop out rate for any RAAM qualifier I’ve been in, even though the weather was perfect. I did 360 miles, most of them fun, and have no regrets dropping. I just wish I could have finished since I was riding well and probably would have made my goals. There were a lot of miles left in my legs and a lot of tunes still unturned on my tapes.