Saturday, June 28, 2014

"The Most F**ked Up Way to See the Country"

Shawn Aker, Brian Ray, me, Matt Geis, and Brian Zupancic at the start of RAAM. Oceanside, CA, June 14, 2014.
I was told that the RAAM experience would 'change my life'. I'm always leery about anything described that way. Every experience has the potential to be life-altering, and I knew that this one would be huge.

My role as Crew Chief was never something I took lightly. I saw it as my personal responsibility to get 13 people from Oceanside, CA to Annapolis, MD in one piece, legally, and in under 6 days and 18 hours. And it was my personal goal that we would all be speaking to each other when we were done.

We met our goals. It was the hardest job I've ever done.  I was extremely prepared for it, all of it:  the sleep deprivation, the personality conflicts, the navigation errors, the shaky hand-offs. But preparation and determination take you only so far. Even though I was 'only' support crew, and not riding a bike, this was the toughest endurance event I've ever attempted.

Race Across America is more like 'The Great Race' than it is a bike race. It's as though the very nature of the race isn't so much as navigating a team of riders across the United States as it is navigating the challenges that this kind of endeavor most certainly brings.

There were dark moments, and plenty of them. But this isn't about those moments. This is about those things that made this adventure so cool. Challenges are opportunities, and make for great stories.

Like Larry, our crew mechanic, disassembling a failed electronic shifting mechanism and installing mechanical shifting on one of the bikes, in the back of the support vehicle going 70 mph and heading 450 miles up the road so as to meet the riders the next day when we were back on a 'live' shift.

Like the encouragement and respect awarded to other racers/teams, especially the guy with one arm who was racing in a 2-person team with his daughter, and the two guys on hand cycles. And every one of the solo riders we passed. And friends we knew on other teams (Sara Harper, Lori Hoechlin). And even Pippa Middleton (she was riding as part of an 8-person team, and is quite the athlete in spite of her association with British royalty).

Like the stupidity, the silliness, the moments where things were so ridiculous the only thing you could do was laugh. And post stupid videos of you and your crew mates doing stupid things.

I was floored by some of BZ's insights - who knew he was such a philosopher? He put all kinds of needed perspective into some of the more tense moments. (The title of this post was one of his more memorable quotes).

I saw how the guys all reacted differently to intense situations. Some got vocal and surly, others got quiet and just took it all out on the road. I appreciated the ones who could simply ride their ride, whatever the terrain, whatever the situation. I was OK with the ones who lost their cool, too.

I watched the dynamic between the riders, who had a rather rough start after the first 24 hours and again toward the end of the race.  The tension was often palpable, the competition between rider teams (the 4 guys rode in teams of 2 the entire way) often perplexing. But somehow they managed to remember, in the middle of the stress and the tiredness and the frustration, that they were all in this together. Those were some powerful moments, and a couple of times I had to walk away because the tears were flowing uncontrollably and I needed to pull myself together. Because that was my job.

Before Brian Ray asked me to be Crew Chief, I admit that I had little interest in Race Across America. I never really cared who entered or who won or what records were being broken. I don't know the names of the winners. I still don't really care about all that. I think the real race is the one that involves the real people, not the ones who train all year and put up hundreds of thousands of dollars for their event. I wish more of the attention would be turned toward those racers like my guys from Ohio Cycleworks. They're the ones that make this thing interesting.

Actually, I think RAAM would be more attractive to everyday people if there was more attention paid to the places that the route passes through on the way from one coast to the other. It's a tour through everything from small-town Americana to ever-changing natural wonders. We crossed through some breathtaking landscapes: the California desert, the Colorado Rockies, the lush Appalachians. As luck and time would have it, my riders traversed both Monument Valley, Utah, and Gettysburg, PA, in the pitch dark. Even without being able to see these places in daylight, you could feel the presence of something sacred, something huge just beyond the blackness. Maybe we were lucky to be there in the middle of the night.

I don't know how this experience changed me, if it did. I guess I learned something about management, how to decide quickly what's important and when to react, and when to not react. I think I knew all these things before the race, but the immediacy of the moment really makes you see things differently.  I do know, however, that I have a deep personal bond now with 12 people who were with me in this adventure. Some of them were friends before we ever got ourselves into this. All of them are friends now.


  1. Pam, I think this is the clearest and most enlightening commentary on crewing that I’ve ever read. Honest and revealing; it should be required reading for any team considering RAAM. I think every experience is potentially a life-changing one. It’s really just a matter of degree.

  2. Very well written and anyone thinking about crewing a RAAM team should read this for sure. Great Job!