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Yanjiang 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.