Note From Joel: A few weeks ago, we profiled the RAAM Race – or the Race Across America – the toughest race in the world. If you’re a little rusty on what it is, here are the basics:
- 3,000 miles
- Starts: Oceanside, CA
- Ends: Annapolis, MD (alternates direction every year)
- It’s a time-trial race format as opposed to a race with multiple stages. You start in Oceanside and you keep riding until the racer arrives in Annapolis, eating, sleeping and stopping when necessary.
- It crosses through 12 states: CA, AZ, UT, CO, KS, MO, IL, IN, OH, WV, PA and MD.
- The race is open to professional and amateur racers.
- The racer has to reach Annapolis in 288 hours (12 days) or be disqualified.
- On average, only 50% of those who start the race are able to finish.
- The racer is supported by a crew of at least 4 – usually there are 6-10 crew members. The crew keeps the racer riding.
Not only is it an insane race that taxes you physically, but it’s an incredible feat of endurance that takes extreme mental determination as well. “What’s going on inside these riders’ heads as they pedal non-stop for 12 days?”, we wondered. Fortunately, Nerve Rush field correspondent Jason Moore tracked down RAAM Race Finisher, Geoff Brunner to get his thoughts on the race, life and everything in between. Take it away Jason.
On your website bio page you talk about riding your bike everywhere as a teen growing up in Georgia. You say that you “learned to love freedom at an early age”.
For 27 years you dreamed about riding a bike across country. After 5 of your friends tragically passed away under the age of 45 within a short span, you decided to go for it. What were your emotions like after you dipped your bike into the Atlantic Ocean and began your first cross-country ride?
I was nervous…really nervous. I had no idea of what to expect, and I felt like I was the worst father and husband in the world. I second-guessed myself for the entire first day of the trip and definitely into the second day as I spent the first night at home (100 miles west of the ocean). But I had to do it – absolutely had to do it. As far as I know, you only go around once, and I sensed this was my only chance to fulfill my dream of riding to my grandparents’ house. I just kept telling myself, this is my only chance, this is my only chance. My grandparents were in their nineties still living in the house in which I had so many fond memories, and the childhood dream was to ride to their house to see them. There was only one way to get there – spin the cranks on the bike.
Can you describe how you felt when you arrived in California by the power of your own two legs, and realized your lifelong dream?
Actually, I expected a greater emotional feeling of accomplishment. My expectations were that I’d feel some great sense of relief or joy, when in actuality, I just felt fortunate. I’d pulled it off; “Ha, Ha – take that!” I thought to myself not knowing who or what was on the receiving end of the taunt. I really expected more self satisfaction (you know like trumpets blaring, a rainbow and angels singing). What it left me with was wanting more…
After 27 years, you finally accomplished your goal. How did that first cross-country ride change your life and outlook? Did you feel more liberated?
My first trip across the country firmly embedded in me the importance of not looking into the future, thinking about what “might happen”. I’m not suggesting that planning is bad, in fact, a certain amount of planning is essential to any challenging endeavor such as a cross country journey on a bike. What I’m suggesting is that the trip gave me a confirming lesson in the need to focus on the present….one pedal revolution at a time. I’ve found that this is very necessary in most aspects of life if I want to be “free”. I’ve not perfected this process though, but I’m always practicing it because I strongly believe that the biggest deterrent to freedom is thinking about the future.
What did you learn about yourself, and this country, on that first trip across America?
I learned that I’m mentally stronger than I thought I was. It was reinforced that I love my wife and son very, very much. I confirmed that I have the most supportive parents any person could ever ask for. I realized that I am extremely fortunate, and that I can accomplish whatever I choose to do.
I learned that there are some pretty bad roads in every state which can beat up a person’s body who is riding a bike. I learned that 99.9% of drivers are courteous towards cyclists, which is a much higher percentage than driver courtesy towards other drivers. I also learned that the beauty of America can ideally be witnessed at 15 mph. Our country’s natural beauty is awe-inspiring. Finally, and MOST-IMPORTANTLY, I came to a comfortable realization, that I am insignificant. The first hint at this reality came in the middle of Kansas. Field upon fields of everything from wheat to corn to cattle to grasses. Openness everywhere. Upon first getting this feeling, I was slightly overwhelmed, and then I came to a point in the panhandle of Texas where I had arrived at the top of a gentle rise, and it seemed like the whole world opened up to me. What I saw was amazing! Perhaps it was the fatigue from 1800 miles alone on a bike, but I know that the scenery gave me a sense of security in a wide open space. Two days later, I reached Vaughn, New Mexico and I suggested to my Dad that I wanted to go out of town a few miles, because I thought the stars would look “neat”. What a casual word (neat) compared to what I saw. I had never seen the “Milky Way” defined before (at least as far as I could remember). The stars were so brilliant, and there were so many. My sense of insignificance was so strong at that point, I realized that my life was mine to live. My time was my time.
It takes guts to take a risk, do something big, and follow your dreams. At some point thoughts spark action. Can you tell me about the process of turning a dream or idea into reality?
Personally, I had to patiently wait for the right time. For my initial ride across the country, I had to reach a point in my life where I truly respected the finiteness of life. My perception at the time was that riding a bike across the country is dangerous. My dream to ride my bike to my grandparents life was surrounded by the concern of death: that someone is going to be on their phone, or drinking, or pass out…and run me over. I rationalized that this could happen while riding my bike within a mile of my house. Even more so, this could happen while driving to a work appointment on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. “What a waste of a good dying!“ I clearly remember thinking: If I’m going “out“, I’d rather have it happen in pursuit of a dream than on the way to work (worker‘s compensation benefits aside, of course)! Through circumstances in my life, primarily the loss of friends from cancer and accidents, I came to the further realization that it’s going to happen sometime, and I don’t want my last thoughts to be, “I wish I would have ridden my bike to my grandparent’s house”. After overcoming my future-focused fear of what might happen, the rest all fell into place.
My only hesitation was the effect this would have on my wife and son. Alison was very supportive of me, and she helped me communicate with Quincy about what this was all about. They were a part of the trip over the first few days and they arrived at LAX 10 minutes before my bike and I reached the end of the runway, so they were able to join me in Redondo Beach for the Pacific dipping!
We all have fears surrounding our decisions. How did you overcome your fears?
As mentioned above, the fear of death was the biggest challenge to overcome. Death of people I know well, for me, tended to alleviate this to a level necessary to go ahead with the trip.
Did you ever get lost, logistically speaking?
I had no GPS, and I only had a basic cell phone. I took maps with me and asked directions along the way. I’d stop often to ask people if I was headed in the right direction to reach a particular town, and in each case, the one I asked was more than willing to help, and several times, I ended up getting into a good conversation. On occasion, I ended up adding a few miles to a particular day through some miscues.
Ok, let’s get to this insane race. Riding your bike cross-country is an incredible feat on it’s own. But racing across country and trying to do it in 12 days or less, that’s just nuts man!
The Race Across America is known as “The World’s Toughest Bike Race.” When did you first hear about it and what on earth made you decide to take this long distance bike riding to the next level?
As I hinted at before, my first trip across the country left me wanting more. As I told my mother-in-law, “After the first time I kissed a girl, I didn’t think, ‘That was nice, and once was enough.’” Luckily, I have an a cool mother-in-law.
Practically speaking, I’m not in a position to take off 4 weeks from work. I don’t feel comfortable asking for it, and I’m not sure whether I’d be granted the request again, and frankly, I’d get too far behind. In addition to a cool mother-in-law, I have a cool manager. Given my time realities, the only way I could ride across the country again is if I had increased support and could do it in less time. The Race Across America provides the venue to accomplish this. I had heard about RAAM several years ago after it first got started, but I hadn’t thought about it until someone mentioned it after I rode across the country the first time. I wondered how far I could go, so I entered a 200 mile race in 2010 and finished 2nd despite cramping up badly after 80 miles and suffering the rest of the way. I figured that I’d take the next step by entering a RAAM qualifier a few months later and again finished second in the 544 mile race, and I qualified for RAAM. What the heck, if I could make it in 27 days with minimal support, I could make it in about half the time if someone is feeding me….this was my rationale!?!? Alison gave me a concerned nudge to go for it, and I entered the 2011 race. Additionally, I wanted to ride to raise money for a charity again. In 2009, when I rode across the country, I rode to raise money for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Neonatal Research Department. They played a role in the greatest joy in my life, the birth of my son. In 2011, I raised money for Dream Come True, a charity here in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, which supports chronically, terminally and seriously ill children’s dreams. This was right in line with my achievement of my childhood dream to ride to my grandparent’s house. This provided added motivation for me as I raced in RAAM in 2011. Every child deserves to realize their dreams – as I mentioned before, I’m extremely lucky to have realized mine.
This race is unlike any other. The clock runs continuously and there are no stages (no set amount of distance you need to ride per day). This means you can push yourself well beyond your rational limits. What keeps you going when you want to stop?
This race is the ultimate test of freedom of choice, in my opinion. The racer can stop at any time. If he or she doesn’t ride at least 250 miles every 24 hours, they won’t make the various cut-offs along the way. Depending on the racer’s ability, training and desire this may or may not be challenging. There were two times when I was ready to quit – once in the desert and once late in the race in the mountains . My brother, the support team’s crew chief, kept talking me into getting back onto the bike. The fatigue is significant, and the voluntary nature of the self-abuse makes it very tempting to call it quits at times. The physical aspect is challenging, and when coupled with the total of 28 hours of sleep over 12 days, makes it that much more difficult. 110 degree temperatures in the California desert followed by 30 degree temperatures 36 hours later in Colorado at up to 11,000 feet in altitude plays havoc with the lungs. 55 mph headwind gusts on the edge of a thunderstorm in the Colorado prairie made me feel like I was pulling a truck. Relentless 100-300 feet climbs over and over in Missouri, Indiana and Ohio prevent any sort of cycling rhythm. The course ends with several hundreds of miles of steep climbs in the Appalachians of West Virginia, western Maryland and Pennsylvania. Then there’s the final 150 miles of heavy traffic in the East as Annapolis nears. Many claim the Race Across America to be the greatest human powered challenge on the earth. I don’t know about that – but what I do know, is that I can quit at any time, and that’s what makes it so appealing to me.
Last year was your first RAAM (is that correct?). What did you learn from that experience that will help you perform better this year?
Last year, our team went into RAAM like three blind mice. My crew was comprised of family members and the massage therapist who had worked with me for the past year. My father and my brother were the crew chiefs because they had the experience of helping me in the qualifier. Everyone else was relatively green. RAAM is as much about getting to the starting line in one piece as it is executing the race. The organization and preparation is severe, and I essentially organized the event on my own prior to arriving in Oceanside, California. Once there, the crew selflessly took over. No one knew what to do, but we figured it out both before and during the race. We were one of the few teams without an RV, so the crew and I had to sleep in motel rooms along the way. This is more comfortable, but not efficient and cost us time. Many circumstances along the way caused some challenges which we should be able to overcome this year. I came up with 15 ways to race faster in 2012 and feel confident that I can break 11 days and challenge the 10 day barrier if everything falls into place. Since 1982, only a few more than 200 racers from around the world have completed the race in the required time of 12 days for men and 13 days for women and men over 60. Significantly fewer can claim breaking the 10 day barrier on the modern course, riding 300 miles per day.
This isn’t a blog about training/fitness but I am curious about your preparation for something like this. A lot of endurance athletes are very meticulous and scientific when it comes to their training. Do you fall into this camp? Can you tell me a little bit about your training regimen?
I’ve always done things by feel more so than by design. I believe experience is the best teacher, so I search for what works and then try to tweak it. In preparation for the 2011 race I rode 8,850 miles from November through May. For the period from November though January, I develop an endurance base through completing at least one weekly 100 mile ride, and I try to ride another 100 miles during the week. In February and March, I increase my weekly long ride to 125-150 miles. This helps prepare the body for the April and May peak training period in which I include weekly interval and hill work and increase the long rides into the 200-250 mile range with several back to back 200-250 mile rides on weekends in May. I only use a heart rate monitor when I’m doing speed work and during the first two days of the race itself. I’m not a big data guy, and focus primarily on how I feel, pushing myself as much as I can without getting injured.
Tell me about your team, and the support they provide. I love that your Mom and Dad are a part of the team and with you the whole way. What does your team mean to you?
Wonderful, Amazing and many other superlatives describe the crew. They were low on sleep last year, in part due to inexperience, but towards the middle and end of the race they started to get into a rhythm. At the risk of sounding cliché, I would not have made it without them. I have at least one instance for each of them, where they said or did something that inspired me or kept me going confidently. Most are back next year, because we’re all very competitive at heart, we’ve all got a somewhat nomadic past, and we know we can do better. My mom and dad helped me across the country the first time and were so helpful in their support. Alison, Quincy and my mother-in-law, Carol, joined me for days 3 through 5 of the journey.
Geoff, your story is inspiring. How can we support you? (include links to any resources where people can donate, or whatever other resources you have)
Our team’s website has information about sponsorship of the team effort through Glory Hog which is one of my lead sponsors. Various sponsorship levels are available if a business or individual is interested in partnering with us to gain exposure. In 2012, I am continuing my fundraising effort for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. There will be a link on the website to my fundraising page for the hospital.
Can you share any helpful resources you have for somebody who dreams of riding a bike across the country, but isn’t sure where to begin?
As with many topics the internet has a wealth of information about pursuing such an endeavor. One can google to their heart’s content and read about many people who have completed the journey and gain tips on long distance bicycle riding. I’m a member of the Pennsylvania Randonneurs group which supports long distance riding, and a local Randonneur group is a great place to start connecting with others who like endurance cycling.
Lastly, your Dad is a homebrewer, will he have a cold one waiting for you at the finish line?
He’s been brewing for some time now and has become particularly good at it. It would be a nice treat to top off another finish in 2012! Both he and my mom shared some great experiences with me on my first trip – it made it that much more special.
Major thanks to Jason & Geoff for sharing this with us. If you know of someone participating in some gut-wrenching adventure, send us a note – email@example.com – we can’t get enough of this stuff!