(English) What I learned from RAAM
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Something’s wrong, I thought, laying in the semi-darkness of the dysfunctional Winnebago Warrior that served as my “sleeper” base. My heart was racing a mile a minute and it felt like there was a fire raging in my insides. Billy, my crew chief, peered into the camper.
‘Rise and shine sleeping beauty. We got a checkpoint to get to tonight. Hope you got some rest.’
‘I didn’t.’ I told him, trying to lift myself. ‘I couldn’t sleep. My heart is beating too fast. I don’t feel too good, Billy.’
‘Yeah?’ He looked worried and came inside, putting out his hand to feel my pulse. ‘Holy shit, you’re burning up!’ He left me there only a few seconds and was quickly back with Lauren, his daughter, Lina, and an armful of ice packs which they placed on strategic parts of my body.
‘I’m gonna get a couple bags of fluids in you,’ Billy told me, preparing the IV needle and inserting it in the vein in my hand. He is also a medic. ‘Let’s see how you’re doing in a half hour.’
They left me lying there and I tried to relax. What was wrong with me? I had felt strong that afternoon after an unscheduled nap. The shifter on my climbing bike was not working after my crash the day before when I hit a rumblestrip at 30 kmph trying to reach for a water bottle from the support car, and ricochetted into the brambles on the side of the road.
‘Help?’ I croaked, my legs stuck in the wheels, as my crew ran to untangle me. Another bloody gash on my knee and forearm. I have pretty much accepted the fact that I will never have pretty elbows and knees. The skin is shiny and pink with old scars and new. The other thing I do really well after falling off bicycles is breaking bicycles.
While I slept through the midday heat on that third day, Billy and my crew mechanic Sam, did an incredible hack job, switching shifters and parts from my other bike to make one working bike that I would use for the rest of the race.
‘When did you start coughing like that?’ Billy asked as I exited the camper van to find my bike ready and waiting.
‘Yesterday’ I told him between a wet, flemmy coughing fit.
‘That’s not good.’ He took some medicine from the jeep. ‘Take this under your tongue.’ He squeezed some blue gel into my open mouth. I suppose the cough should have been my first inkling that something was not right. Then there was the abnormal fatigue. I had slept well the night before, so there was no good reason for the sudden exhaustion that washed through my limbs. They were so heavy, I reached the point where I had no energy left to pedal, and it seemed pointless to continue at that pace. I was having trouble holding up my head too, and that morning my crew had rigged a rough contraption around my head and chest to assist my tiring neck.
When I got up from my rest, I felt revived and scarfed down two burritos—the first solid food I had managed to get down during the day. I had found it impossible to eat over those three days, just seeing food alone was nauseating. I was not getting enough calories, which may have been contributing to my fatigue, but now I had food in me and a brief rest, I felt renewed and the pace I set that afternoon showed it.
‘Yes! She’s back!’ Billy shouted as I sped by. ‘Now go do what Juliana does best.’
Then, without warning, this. I felt so ill, I could not raise my limbs from the mattress where I lay panting desperately for air. Lina came in to check on me.
‘I can’t breathe.’ I whispered. She ran outside and in a few short seconds Billy was back putting his hands under my shoulders and forcing me to sit up.
‘You have to sit up.’ He said. ‘Your lungs are filling with liquid.’ He held me a sitting position on one side, Lauren on the other as Lina stacked a pile of pillows and covers to prop me up on. Billy took my temperature and shook his head. ‘You’ve been iced and had two bags of hydration fluid, and your temperature still hasn’t gone down. I’m afraid you’re in bad shape.’
They left me there to confer outside. When Billy came back and sat down next to me, I already knew what he was going to say from the look on his face.
‘I’m afraid you can’t continue in this condition. You’ve been suffering from pulmonary edema. I’ve seen it a lot. It’s taken down many riders on the Tour Divide. It’s serious enough that you can die if you don’t catch it. That’s what the medicine was for that I gave you earlier. This is worse though. Your infection seems to have developed into full on pneumonia.’
I lay there, only half comprehending what he was saying. I felt delirious, maybe from my brain not getting enough oxygen, but the words ‘can’t continue’ were clear enough.
‘I’m sorry.’ I mumbled.
‘Don’t ever say you’re sorry!’ Billy answered. ‘This is something outside your control. As crew chief, I’m gonna have to call it.’
And that was it. Race over. I spent the next couple weeks hacking up dead bacteria. The sense of defeat did not hit me till I got home however. All that training and planning, time and resources spent, only for it to end this way. It was frustrating. Like paying for a giant buffet and not being able to eat it. I still had a race in my legs. Had it been any of the unsupported races I usually ride, I could have recovered and got back in the race, behind yes, but I would have finished. RAAM makes multiple checkpoints with cut off times. If you don’t make the hard cutoffs, you’re out of the race. That too seemed unfair. I felt the disappointment of my failure even though logically I knew there was nothing I could have done about it.
Thing is, failure is something everyone faces at some point in life. It is part of the human experience. It is easy to feel strong when you are winning. ‘When you risk big, you either win big or lose big and not everybody has the courage to take that kind of risk.’ My sister told me the other day. I do not actually believe there is such a thing as failure, because every experience teaches you something. It is all part of the journey. So here’s what my RAAM experience has taught me. Sometimes you have to find out what you don’t want in order to know what you do want. I decided to enter RAAM initially out of curiosity to find out what all the fuss was about, and yes, for a different kind of racing experience. It was interesting to cover 500+ kilometres a day without the weight of bags and gear. That was about the only plus.
I love unsupported bikepacking races because I love the adventure and the unknown factor. I love being alone in my head on the road, riding for my own pleasure and satisfaction. It is not so much about the competition as the simple pleasure the ride gives me. I had none of that in the RAAM. It was all the suffering without the joy. I did not see many of the other riders enjoying themselves either. They were all in agony but there was little exctasy. That is why it all felt so pointless, because without the contrast, the reward, to me, was not worth the risk or the pain. I suppose, having cycled the length and width of the US a few times, and having seen what spectacular routes are out there, I was spoiled for comparison. The Trans Am Bike Race, for instance, is 1,400 miles longer, the climbs tougher, the views along the route more spectacular and you can race it for a tenth of the cost of RAAM. The RAAM takes riders down all the busiest highways across America. Apart from Monument valley, there was little beauty, few incredible views to make your heart sing along the way. You are surrounded constantly by traffic, by a car rolling along behind you, by your crew shouting. You cannot just settle in and get into your head space. Then there are the rules: a regular tome of over 1,500 rules which will earn you penalties, none of which would exist were there not caravans of cars and crew involved which automatically make the risk of accidents on the busy highways yet higher. I will not come back, because I could cycle the world again twice, or race 6 years’ worth of unsupported races, with the cost of a single RAAM race.
I get that for some, the challenge alone is worth it. I have huge respect for the riders who continually go back every year and push themselves to such extremes and even more so for being able to do that particular route over and over again. I met some really cool people during the race, crew and riders alike. Anyone who does the RAAM, whether they finish or not, is tough as nails. I used to think I might be slightly masochistic for the suffering one inevitably endures in these ultra races, but I have since changed my mind. I am willing to suffer for the adventure, the rush, the excitement, the pleasure that being on the open road gives me. And that is what I want. That kind of ride. So I am going back to doing what I do best, what I love, what makes me come alive: riding hard, alone, with joy.
luglio 7, 2016 @ 11:39
I have the utmost respect for you and just the fact that you were willing to put yourself out there to try something new is incredible. Figuring out what makes us tick is ongoing because we grow, we develop and sometimes we have to adapt. Very glad that you had a great crew that realised the danger you were in, and now that you are better may the rest of your sunrises and sunsets on the road be of the kind that you create and crave. Looking forward to your next update on what happens next.
luglio 7, 2016 @ 13:18
Juliana you are an inspiration and a legend. Devastated to see what you are going through but please look after yourself and I truly hope you will get well soon!
luglio 7, 2016 @ 13:26
I’ll never race.
I done some touring where I traveled at most 100 miles in on day( flatlands)
Totally in agreement about how you rather race unsupported. When I’m out on my bike my mind gets lost in the world around me. Nothings better to refresh my brain
luglio 7, 2016 @ 13:48
Great and honest story. Hope you will recover soon but I like the way you’ve wrote the article because it sounds very familiar for most of us bikepackers, long distant riders en travellers. Thanks Juliana!!
luglio 7, 2016 @ 14:26
You are Truly Inspiring! You Won by being there!
luglio 7, 2016 @ 16:25
Hope your feeling better and recover fully. Thank you for putting your thoughts into words. Great words from Billy Rice ” don’t ever feel sorry ” but we do anyway. And we do fail. But you have such a great take on life and fill it with such adventure. Keep on being normal its every one else that’s crazy.
luglio 7, 2016 @ 16:34
Thank you for sharing, so glad Billy was there to look after you and I agree things happen for a reason. I’m glad you took the challenge, I’m very proud of you. Also you confirmed what I thought all along but wasn’t sure, that RAAM is not for me either for the same reasons. Hope you are doing better and I hope to one cross paths out there,
luglio 7, 2016 @ 18:13
Excellent read and great insight. You are a champ.
luglio 7, 2016 @ 21:36
Great post, enjoyed reading it. Its good to have perspective!
luglio 7, 2016 @ 22:40
Good honest no nonsense assessment of your experience – All the best for the future, Look forward to read about your next cycling adventure …
luglio 7, 2016 @ 23:53
Yes! Love you Juliana.
luglio 8, 2016 @ 00:17
The most important thing is that you tried, had the experience and learned from it. Your points comparing RAAM to ‘adventure’ riding are very good. I know you’ve heard this a 1000 times, but I stumbled upon your book on Amazon, got curious, read your blog etc about a month ago and you have inspired me as well as countless others, not only by what you are doing, but also the way you do it and not least your attitude to what you do.
What inspiration you might ask. Well, after 20 years of family life and no exercise I wanted to get back to my previous level of fitness. Soccer was out of the question, I hate running but always had a bike. ( everybody does in Denmark). So, bought a new bike, the hybrid was too heavy so got a Bianchi racing bike last year and started training much more. Your inspiration was first of all to train longer distances and secondly doing it for the adventure and your own pleasure. I would never have contemplated riding 100 or 200 km but now those distances are my goals. Never give up, endure the suffering, always arrive at your destination no matter what the obstacles. Now I don’t care so much about windy weather and rain.
My motivation for riding became clear. I think I will never join a cycling club, use a power meter or ride to compete. Just as you write it is about the ride itself and the simple personal pleasure it brings. Plus, of course, the fitness and health benefits at my age (55). Just riding without a bike computer makes it a more pleasant experince=no pressure! (tried it once…..hmmm).
The most amazing thing you have done, in my eyes, was your brave ride around the world. With no experience that was incredible. Just making that decision is fantastic. Rebel attitude, nothing to lose, just doing it. I just read your first book – I hope your biking adventures and ‘new’ life has helped you tame your inner demons.
My very best wishes and luck for your future.
luglio 8, 2016 @ 00:55
“…riding hard, alone, with joy.” Is there anything better?
luglio 8, 2016 @ 01:41
Juliana, you are a winner and always will be because you’ve learned the important lessons. I’ve always found that the worst parts of my life have taught me something About myself and they’ve made me a stronger person. That’s what I see in you. I’m kind of glad that, if this had to happen, it was while you were in a supported race, major highways not withstanding. I’m betting that it won’t be long before you’ll be planning for and training for another race. Just once when you’re in America, it would be really nice to meet you face-to-face.
luglio 8, 2016 @ 02:04
I think you are an amazing athlete. I have followed your exploits and have watched the movie Inspired to Ride. I think that you are an amazing athlete. I understand a bit how you felt I had heat exhaustion last year but after hydrating I got back in and finished the RAW with my partner, a two man relay. I am training to do the RAW solo then hopefully do the RAAM the following year (2018). It seems that you do not want to do the event again I get that but maybe Seana Hogan’s experience of DNF a couple of times, I think, may shed some light on your current train of thought. Keep up the awesome work in the sport!
luglio 8, 2016 @ 02:59
Thank you Juliana! I am really enlivened by your critique of RAAM, of your team to catch and pull you through to recovery, and for your honest reflections. Ride on! With endurance, electricity, and ecstasy. You are an inspiration!
luglio 8, 2016 @ 04:03
Hi Juliana, I second all you said, each word. It was my first and hopefully last experience as a crew chief in RAAM. I still want to know if RAAM makes sense at all. What was our contribution to humans’ well beings? Because, you know, such an unbelievable sacrify has to make a difference in people’s life. What is this difference? I am not sure about the answer, yet.
luglio 9, 2016 @ 08:14
I like the whole story in comparison of the first post you had shortly after your ended RAAM. I , too was a non finisher in 2006, due to serious girl issues. At first, I feel my RAAM dream was shattered, but after crewing 10 times for a variety of riders, each experience, I came away with new friends and some enemies. I was finished in 2014, never to go back. Yet, I will not regret what I learned about myself in those selfless 2 weeks of my life. I too, prefer to train alone, ride solo 24 hr mtb races at my own steady pace, and hope to just “ride” the Divide in a year or two. It is within our personal self to achieve what is important to us that matters. I have high esteem for RAAM athletes, and have seen it all, sometimes I get it, sometimes I don’t. It is very personal and individual for each rider. Good on you and just keep doing what you are good at. God bless, Snowkitty🐾
Rainer "kingcrab" Klaus
luglio 13, 2016 @ 15:10
I have great respect for every human doing solo RAAM. Not only finishing, just trying to. But, I know that what we like to call fun, meaning enjoying competition and all the situation around is not a big factor in RAAM.
So, Juliana, you entered RAAM after having done the most spectacular rides for mind and body like Transambikerace and Transcontinentalrace as well as the ride around the planet earth, and I easy can imagine that there is something you missed.
For me, starting “on the other side”, beginning with things like RAAM, then entering the unsupported “world”, riding became a new, a bigger game.
Stay or come back in that game you like.
luglio 25, 2016 @ 03:15
Inspirational tale of woe. You rock.
luglio 28, 2016 @ 15:58
Juliana, You are definitely a badass!
luglio 29, 2016 @ 13:38
I agree with you Juliana, I had more or less the same experience with another endurance discipline. Nothing is better than being on its own and doing what you like at your own pace.
settembre 5, 2016 @ 09:45
Ms. Buhring, please take all the time you need to recover. From experience, pneumonia is no fun. Hang in there!