RAAM OPEN EAST 1990
by Roger S Nelson
The RAAM (Race Across AMerica) Open East qualifier this year started in Johnstown, New York on Friday, September 14 at 8:00 am. The weather was turning very nice when the bikers lined up on the starting line. I had two support crews. Dolly (my daughter) and Reba Thelen made one, Diane Fisher and Bill Tucker the other. They worked shifts supporting me during this event. The active crew played "leapfrog" with me during the day, but followed continuously behind at night so I could ride in the car headlights. The inactive crew was free to eat, rest, sight see, or whatever. To avoid congestion, the crews were not allowed to leave Johnstown until half an hour after the riders left.
Dolly and Reba took the first shift. I needed to see them as soon as possible to get more Exceed (a sports drink) and drop off my arm warmers and tights. I signaled furiously for them to stop the first time I saw them, but they drove right on by and didn't even slow down to ask if I needed anything. It seemed like forever before I caught them and made a handoff of Exceed and dropped the arm warmers.
As a rider I wanted my crew to stay behind as much as possible. That way, if I had a flat or some other problem, they would be along to help in only a few minutes. But if they were waiting 5 miles ahead and I had a flat, it could lead to a major delay. The next time I saw them they drove right on by again. And then again. As I got madder and madder (frustration is the key word here) I pedaled harder and harder. (Too bad I couldn't stay angry for a whole race.) Finally, I just had to stop and "instruct" my crew. After that, they were fine.
My pre-race plan was to not pay attention to the other riders but to take it easy early in the race and ride at my own pace. Stupid plan! It just doesn't work that way. I was racing! Being frustrated by my crew just made it easier to hammer away until after about a hundred miles my right knee started hurting and I was forced to pedal easier. After about 50 more miles my knee felt better and I had no more trouble with it.. The particular bikers I was racing had all passed by and were out of sight.
It was great seeing "truck downhill" signs (even though I paid a price to get to them). At one I hit 49 mph, which is 4 mph faster than I ever coasted in Michigan.
During the race, people along the road asked questions. Usually I only had time to answer one question as I whizzed by. Could I really give out useful information in one answer? One perceptive lady early in the race saw several bikers go by and asked, "Is there a bike race going through here?". I only had time to say "yes" and I was gone. Later, about a hundred miles from Johnstown and still heading away from it, another guy asked, "Where are you going?". Since the race starts and ends in Johnstown, I said "Johnstown" and was gone. If he even knew where Johnstown was, what was he thinking? That I was going the wrong way? Later I went by a fellow who asked, "How far are you going?". I wondered what he was thinking as I said "530 miles", and zoomed away.
The air stayed warm all day, but the wind kicked up and stripped leaves, twigs, and small branches from trees and left them all over the road. It howled in the telephone lines. I went by a dirt parking lot and got sandblasted.
While heading into Chateaugay, about 20 minutes after midnight, I heard the village siren go off. Just ahead I saw a barn burning not very far off the road. I hurried to get by before the fire trucks started coming so I wouldn't be delayed. I rode into heavy smoke and swirling sparks that blew across the road. I heard wood crackling. (The smoke didn't look near as bad on the outside as it did on the inside!) For a few seconds I was worried until I popped out into breathable air again. The bikers just behind were delayed over an hour.
I packed along a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread, but never even thought of a knife. Dolly and Reba were crewing the first time I asked for a sandwich. Later I asked for another sandwich when my crews were changing shifts. I heard Diane ask where the knife was. Reba said to "spread it with your fingers". Dolly said, "That's what I did". Diane said, "Yuuck". I did get my sandwich, but Bill and Diane never told what they used to spread the peanut butter - just that it wasn't their fingers.
Shortly after making the turnaround in Plattsburgh, it started raining. No problem. I was expecting rain. It rains every time I go to New York. I put on my raincoat and pedaled along. By 8:00 am Saturday morning, 24 hrs into the race, I had in 350 miles and still felt pretty good. I thought I might finish by 8:00 pm Saturday night, but that was not to be.
By the time I got to Lake Placid a number of riders had dropped out. Later in the afternoon I turned up another grueling hill straight into a gusting wind on Blue Ridge Road. I could only go 5 mph pedaling with all my strength. It wasn't worth it. I walked part way just to stretch and rest some of my biking muscles a bit. I rode into the wind (seemingly uphill) all the way to Long Lake.
After 450 miles I was into the second night. My feet hurt, my arms hurt, and my butt hurt. It hurt to pedal. It hurt to shift. It hurt just to coast. (It even crossed my mind that maybe I wasn't having fun.) Those "truck downhill" signs now meant hitting bumps at high speed, getting cold (because of wind chill) and a steep climb at the bottom. The temperature dropped into the 30's and I actually preferred the climbs so I could warm up.
As I went through the dark forests under starry skies every now and then a frog sat in the road while I rode by. One of them, in a last act of desperation, Hopped under my wheel as I went by. I didn't blame him. He must have felt as bad as I did.
I went without any sleep for almost 40 hours. I was still lucid, but I had trouble riding in a straight line. (Imagine that!) The darkness and my eyes started playing tricks on me. I saw trees alongside the road - growing out of paper grocery sacks? Even caffeine didn't help. When I saw taillights flash ahead (from cars that had already passed behind) I went down (napped in the car) for 30 minutes. Then I continued on. In spite of everything, I just couldn't think of quitting, only finishing.
After some 42 hours the race ended at 2:30 am Sunday morning when an official gave me a red ribbon on which was attached a gold coin (the kind with chocolate inside) to hang around my neck - like an Olympic medal. He told me it's a tradition and, "if the race didn't kill me, the chocolate definitely would".
31 people started the race and I came in 11th out of only 12 finishers, some 10 hours behind the winner. I now have something that very few (if any) bikers have, i.e. Official Finisher plaques from all three of the RAAM qualifying races, each plaque earned on my first try. I am only a little disappointed that I never qualified for RAAM. On the other hand I am very satisfied that I pushed to my limits.