It’s been two weeks since I crossed the finish line in Annapolis, Maryland, with the other three racers in my team, and I’m still trying to recall all the nuances of the epic race that is Race Across America (RAAM). This post is primarily around the approach taken to tackle this race as a four person team. (See here for the summary of my race itself). As the popularity of the team relay format grows, hopefully this post may be of some use to someone out there who is considering it.
Why race across America?
For me, it all started with a Skype call from someone who I had never met before, back in November 2016. I’d heard of them and their mountaineering feats, and they had heard of me and of some of my sporting achievements. I was being called to be invited to be the third man in a four man team for RAAM. I had heard of the race, but had never looked at the logistics, nor considered the possibility of competing as a team. When I realised the scope of the logistics involved and was told that most of it was already being covered through the Crew Chief, I decided that this was genuinely a one in a lifetime opportunity, and promptly agreed to join the team.
The Racers’ Approach
The relay team concept works by having at least one rider on the road at any point in time. With a four man crew, we decided that we would break into two sub teams. Each sub team would do a six hour shift, generally comprising intervals of one hour on the bike, one hour off, though this might be reduced as we go up big mountains.
The Crew’s Approach
We agreed on six crew, and they would be split into three pairs, each working 12 hour shifts, which would comprise six hours driving and navigating the RV, then six hours driving and navigating the minivan support vehicle. Do not underestimate the commitment required by the crew. Our crew were stars. It helped that they happened to be three couples, so that there were no issues with the sleeping crew sharing a small sleeping area in the top of the RV.
By the last week of December 2016, I was back from East Malaysia (see my post on Kinabalu) and was focused on time on the bike. In January 2017 I started an intensive course of spin classes with the intention of increasing my cardio base, getting my legs used to spinning, and dropping weight. By March I was on track for weight loss, having shed 10% of my overall body weight.
I ignored all other competitions this year. I withdraw my entry to the Dragon’s Back multi-day trail race in May, and I only competed in one sprint triathlon in March which I was already marshalling (regrettably I DNF’ed as I got a puncture and didn’t have a puncture repair kit on me).
I decided to splash out on a new road bike, and got professionally fitted to it. I also purchased a Wahoo Kickr turbo trainer, and after dabbling with Zwift, I settled on Trainer Road as my app of choice to structure my training. I knew it was a risky approach – doing most of my training indoors, but as it turns out, this approach worked. I built up from single 30-45 minute sessions to stringing together three 1 hour sets with 15 to 60 minutes rest in-between. It took me some time to figure it out, but I eventually managed to simulate hill climbing by selecting workouts that required a high power output, but keeping the cadence low, and using a climbing block under the front wheel.
I trained used percentages of my functional threshold power (FTP). I found this so useful, I considered purchasing a power meter for the race, but once I saw the price I decided to just do some training with both my FTP and using a heart rate monitor, then crudely map percentage effort levels back to heart rate zones. Using heart rate zones worked particularly well during stints of the race when my body was just complaining that it was tired and I needed to keep my power output high but within a sustainable zone.
I was told that I would be eating a lot of fast food during the race, and initially I thought that was a joke, but it turns out that when you’re searching for food in the middle of the night and need it in a hurry, the golden arches does not disappoint! I practiced eating in-between sets during my training, and got used to it. I also worked on my hydration strategy during training, getting used to replacing as much fluid and electrolytes as possible during exercise itself.
During training, I tired of consuming energy gels (plus they end up being quite expensive when you’re getting through a box of them a week!), and I recall several sets where I would just have a stack of slices of white bread next to me on the turbo trainer, and used each slice instead of a gel. Very cost effective during training!
During the race, our crew were doing Walmart shops every day. Our drinks selection ranged from Muscle Milk (a protein shake) to Gatorade (not a fan personally), coconut water (huge fan), to iced lattes, slabs of coke, diet coke, Fanta, and so on. There was never a shortage of ice in the RV or minivan – we used insulated cooler boxes. As the week wore on during the race, one of the crew pairs took to washing themselves using the melted ice water from the cooler boxes!
The most unusual meal I had during the race was late morning around day four, when I was starving and low on energy after the ‘shift’ of three hours on the bike, as well as being massively sleep deprived. I got back onto the RV, and the crew were asking me lots of questions, but my brain could not figure out the answers to question like “would you rather stay put and rest, or drive up the road?”. I just kept saying I needed food, and soon I was presented with a huge piece of cold fried chicken, which I ate with a chocolate chip cookie, a Muscle Milk, two cans of Fanta, followed by a large cold fishcake. I felt much better afterwards!
A staple food we had all week was sandwiches. Cheese sandwiches, ham sandwiches. With salad. Every day. Several sandwiches. I remember one fraught exchange when the active riders were coming past the stationery RV and they had radioed to request food, and one of the crew was busy making sandwiches. I asked her if she could just hand them to me as they were, as the minivan was due in one minute, but she refused to compromise on her sandwich-making, and insisted on adding salad and cutting each sandwich in half, before I grabbed the pile of them, threw them into bag, ran out the RV and flung them into the open sliding door of the minivan.
As a cautionary tale, there was one night when I thought I was done on the bike, and was winding down in the minivan, with less than half an hour to go till the rendezvous with the RV and the swap with the other two riders. I had decided to start eat a final sandwich, top up on water and have a chocolate Muscle Milk, when my other rider (who was riding a few metres in front of the minivan through a sleepy town) went over a pothole and got two punctures. “Double puncture! Get out!” was what I heard on the radio, and so, with a belly full of chocolate milk, I donned my cycling shoes and hopped on my bike to ride us till the end of shift.
Sleep management was hugely important during the race itself. During the final weeks of training, one or two other riders practiced riding three 1 hour blocks, sleeping for six, then repeating. I decided not to lose a weekend doing that, and it turned out that it was unnecessary. During the race, there was no such thing as six hours sleep! When the shift ended, there was at least 15 minutes of faff getting everything from the minivan into the RV, then changing layers, charging USB devices, choosing food and drink to consume, then either eating, sleeping for a short while, or driving approximately 100-125 miles up the road to the next anticipated rendezvous spot. In the daytime, I would be in favour of moving up the road, as it was often so hot that the only way to sleep was with the windows open in the back of the RV.
Whilst the vehicle was moving, if it was night time, my routine would be to lay a towel down on my half of the bedding (the same double bed that was used by both sub teams), then just collapse onto it wearing a pair of baggy shorts. Quite often I would eat then immediately go to sleep, which probably helped contribute to the indigestion and heart burn I experienced later in the week.
Sleep deprivation from the racer’s perspective is not the worst thing in the world. For each of us, our bodies adapted well and we would just sleep as we needed to. It’s been over two weeks since the finish line and I still find myself nodding off suddenly!
The temperatures in California were in the high 20s to low thirties (Celsius), but once we got into the desert, the temperatures soared into the mid forties. I was using High Five Zero electolytes for general electrolyte replacement, with Salt Stick capsules once hydration fatigue set it. For the hottest sections, when nothing else would cut it, I still swear by Precision Hydrate’s 1500mg electrolyte sachets.
Every couple of days during the race we would get access to a shower. One of the timing stations, TS6, provided showers (thanks guys!), and a cold water paddling pool. On about day three, I was asleep when one of my crew ran into a motel asking if they did rooms by the hour, for six people to use – I wish I was there to see the look on receptionist’s face! Once she explained that it was just to have showers for the crew and resting racers, the receptionist provided a room with towels, toiletries, cake and thick cut ham for everyone, all free of charge.
When shower facilities were not available, I used wet wipes to stay clean. An extra pack of wet wipes and hand sanitiser gel in the minivan came in handy for the team. Hand washing was, as always, important in a communal environment.
The team had matching race kit shipped to San Diego fortunately the kit was high quality and well fitting. We managed to wash race kit a couple of times during the race, and the high temperatures helped to dry clothes quickly. Four sets of race kit per rider worked out fine, though we were putting on used kit at least once a day. I religiously applied chamois cream onto the pad of clean bib shorts, and used Sudocrem at the end of shifts. Foot powder on my feet didn’t hurt either.
Each rider brought their own preferred bike, plus we had one spare bike and one separate spare set of wheels. I was the only rider not to use clip-on tri bars; for a while I regretted this decision, but since I had not trained with them, this was probably for the best. Over the course of the week, I honed an aero position that didn’t require tri bars, and it worked quite well.
We had one minivan and one RV: this is the bare minimum that RAAM will let you have for the relay team. There were a few lessons learnt on this front: book your vehicles early! We didn’t, and ended up having to buy two crew members new flights to the East coast so they could collect an RV and drive it to the West coast for the start of the race. Know what to do in the event of punctures: we had not one but two minivan punctures during the week, both in the middle of the night and had to survive till the morning with the minivan using a space saver tyre whilst the RV came back, got the bad tyre, got it fixed, returned it, then sped off once more to the next rendezvous point.
Comfort and Convenience
I brought three high capacity USB chargers for my personal use to power my various USB lights and my mobile phone. We had two MiFi devices: one in the RV, one in the minivan. This allowed us occasional contact with the real world, as well as letting us track our progress against other competitors, and getting vital updates from RAAM HQ who published route changes using Google Sites.
When off the bike, I wore a comfortable pair of shorts, a vest or t-shirt, and flip flops. Lots of deodorant since we were all sharing a confined space. I balanced sleep with social conversations: it turns out there’s plenty of opportunities to get to know your crew and fellow riders better over the course of one week!
If you get the chance… save up, train hard then do this race!
Keep pushing yourself