“And beyond the garden Gilgamesh saw the sea. “
-Tablet IX Gilgamesh
When I built the mental map of our RAAM trek from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland; I had drawn a kind of nebulous west to east line. Crossing the Mississippi River and finding myself in Illinois, soon thereafter to cross into Indiana, put me way north of that line of perception. The RAAM route, perhaps seeking less-travelled roads in the much more heavily populated eastern part of the country, bends north through those states as well as Ohio, before dipping down into West Virginia and Maryland, only to veer north into Pennsylvania and finally back into Maryland again. José continued to ride on schedule as we entered zones of steady rain in Indiana that later morphed into ominous thunderstorms. He didn’t mind riding in the rain, but when a thick streak of lightning struck the ground just ahead of us in Columbus, Indiana; José quickly got in the van and we dozed and waited out the lightning. A very nice local lady bought and fetched us coffee as we got ready to continue east.
The fact that José actually liked riding in the rain was the result of a decision that was just one aspect of his mental strength. Of course, no one is inherently waterproof, but at some point José decided that since most people don’t like to ride in the rain, he would embrace it and make it his advantage.
Another strength of his was that he could accept when things went wrong without letting it affect his performance. Back in Oceanside I told him that RAAM would be a 3,000 mile problem-solving exercise in spite of the fact that he and the crew chief had done an excellent job of planning. He said, “That’s right. If you want to ride a trouble-free 3,000 miles, don’t ride RAAM. Go to a velodrome.” But I think it was his ability to blithely submerge himself into the misery of the whole exercise, though, that got him through RAAM. During a brief stop in a 24-hour race in Texas a few months before RAAM, when I remarked that twenty-four hours must seem really easy to him after all the longer races he’s done, he demurred and said that all the races were incredibly hard, that there was always a very short initial euphoric stage, but that before too long you were completely tired and miserable. Ultradistance cycling, José said, is about dealing with suffering.
Physiologically, José was doing fine during the last third of the race, but having spent seven or eight days in a severely sleep-deprived state was making him catatonic. Many RAAM riders will actually fall asleep on the bike and some will crash and break a collarbone or have a head injury, and we were concerned about this problem for José. To a lesser degree, sleep deprivation was also a near-constant problem for the rest of us. By the time we got to Chillicothe, Ohio I was once again upside down on sleep, unsafe behind the wheel, but wide awake when we had a chance to rest. In a perfectly decent queen sized bed in the Chillicothe Super 8 I lay for two hours exhausted and wired with my Red Bull-infused heart thumping and my forehead sweaty, before eventually getting up to meet the rest of the crew. To complain about being sleepy on RAAM was like complaining about being sandy while on an expedition across the Sahara. Everyone on the team was tired and sleepy, and José was practically a zombie in addition to being totally physically exhausted most of the time. But when I reached the point of knowing I was unsafe to drive behind José, it seemed to be the right thing to do to say so. I was saved again by Vaune, who fed me a meal and gave me something to help me sleep, and James Doggett, who took four hours of my driving shift so I could get caught up.
Driving safety soon became a prime concern when the route turned onto U.S. Highway 50, which was to take us for a couple hundred miles through West Virginia into Maryland. For a route choice, Highway 50 could well have been the least of all evils, but it was, for all intents and purposes, an interstate, which the RAAM planners seemed to do their best to try to avoid through the rest of the race. Dense traffic, including eighteen-wheelers, buzzed us at interstate speeds as we rode along the shoulder. For rider safety, race rules would have required us to exit and enter at the on and off ramps if we would have been on an interstate, but since Highway 50 is a U.S. highway, we crept across the ramps, praying we were visible enough for other traffic to avoid us. José was still holding his average speed for the whole race above the 10.53 mph required to make José an official finisher, but we believed he’d need to bank all the time he could to get through the famously difficult Appalachians. I tried my best to shield José with our van, but I’m not sure what good that would have done if a vehicle would have plowed into me at 70 miles per hour other than save José the indignity of being actually struck by a total stranger. In retrospect, we would have been safer treating Highway 50 like an interstate, but like dog-tired soldiers taking tactical short cuts on patrol after several days in a combat zone, fatigue and the perceived need to make the best possible time made us poor decision makers.
On the night of June 23rd, several miles up the road from us on Highway 50 in Doddridge County, West Virginia, the driver of a pickup truck hit Anders Tesgaard, a RAAM solo rider from Denmark. It has been reported that Anders’ follow vehicle left him to refuel, a RAAM rules no-no which would have left him exposed to highway traffic. The driver who struck the cyclist from behind broke several of Anders’ bones including fourteen ribs, fractured his skull, right cheekbone and jaw and collapsed both of his lungs. Anders also suffered a tear in his kidney which was later repaired. Anders was eventually flown back to Denmark where he continues in a coma at the time of this writing. Anders’ horrific accident cast a pall over the whole event (at least for me), and I believe I am one of many people connected to RAAM who think of him often and check his progress on the Facebook page that his friends and family maintain.
To get to West Virginia means riding the final mountains of RAAM. Although they are not as impressive in elevation as the Rockies, the Appalachians bludgeon exhausted riders with steep, successive climbs that trim away hard-won average speed. José muscled up the inclines in his easiest gear (34x32) at five miles per hour, but he was so tired that when he would start down the other side, he would get so sleepy that he couldn´t take advantage of the free speed of the descent and white-knuckled the brakes at five or ten miles an hour.
The constant rain also made the downhills sketchy and it was probably almost as mentally taxing for us to follow him as it was for him to ride. At the steepest parts he would get out of the saddle and the sight of him hunched over with the outline of his ribs visible through his jersey made us want to get out and run and push him (of course, he wouldn’t have let us do that if we had tried) until we shared in his physical exhaustion. Janice would check the printed race directions from the route book against the tracking system and the maps over and over, constantly fearful of allowing José to take a wrong turn. We had reached a point in the race where we desperately wanted to support him well, not to avoid the recriminations of the crew chief, but to keep José from having to suffer unnecessarily, to keep him from having to execute a single wasted pedal stroke, to go without a single mouthful of food or drink that he wanted or needed. Through it all he was patient and in good humor, his interactions with us littered with “please” and “thank you.”
José pedaled steadily through southern Pennsylvania and back into Maryland for the final few time stations to finish. The other follow crew took a herculean pull with him through the night of the 27th and much of the morning of the 28th to get him to the finish. We all met him at the pier in Annapolis where he rolled in twelfth of sixteen official finishers in the Male 18-49 solo age group (eleven riders in that group did not finish) with a finish time of 11 days, 16 hours, and 53 minutes, having averaged 10.69 mph over the 3,005 miles.
I will never ask José why he does RAAM, because I doubt I could get a complete answer. It seems to me that human intent is a very slippery thing. I doubt that what compels us to do something is ever a singular, known, clear motive. It seems to me more likely that we are propelled forward or fixed into inactivity by a complex matrix of intentions: some that are known and stated, others that are known but not stated because we’re not proud of them, and still others, no less powerful than the known motives, that are totally buried in the unconscious, and thus, unknowable. What he can justly be very proud of is the fact that he raised over $15,000 for Habitat for Humanity, which resulted in a home being built for a family right in Brazos County. José bore the expense of RAAM himself and committed all of his focused fundraising efforts to Habitat for Humanity, which is a beautiful thing. There are obviously less brutal ways to raise money than riding your bike 3,005 miles on two hours sleep a day, though, so there must be something else to it.
I once heard a TED talk that posited that ultradistance endurance athletes all train and race out of a need to overcome some great emotional pain that’s been inflicted on them sometime in their lives. I reject that idea as insulting and overly simplistic.
I have a theory, though, one that is hopefully a little more positive, that I will try to explain in framework of the hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs puts physiological requirements like food, drink and sleep as well as safety near the bottom of a pyramid. Maslow’s theory states that we need these things to survive before we can move higher in the pyramid and start seeking love, belonging and esteem. Eventually, once we have all those essential needs guaranteed, we can go for self-actualization, which is the achievement of one's full potential, and then self-transcendence, which has to do with committing oneself to a goal greater than and outside oneself. RAAM indicates to me that that the needs, instead of being linear, hierarchical and pyramidal, may be circular. To reach self-actualization and self-transcendence, the RAAM cyclist buries himself or herself back into the base of the hierarchical pyramid where he or she burns through so many calories that his or her body starts to consume his or her own muscle tissue, operates deeply in a deficit of sleep, and even severely compromises his or her basic life safety. The RAAM rider, then, like the combat soldier, the free-diver, the sweat-lodge worshiper, and the Native American brave on vision quest, may reach the ultimate self-actualization in a state where the most basic elements of life are stripped away.
I have heard of successful riders who finish RAAM and then swear off ultradistance cycling, satisfied to have cheated death and get on with their lives. But José, standing bleary-eyed and bearded at the finish line in Annapolis, when asked if he was seriously considering riding RAAM again, said, “Why wouldn’t you?”
 I do not intend for this Highway 50 discussion to be a criticism of the RAAM directors or officials, many of whom have completed and/or crewed RAAM themselves. Unlike the corporate bloodsuckers who have highjacked the Ironman triathlon, the RAAM directors, officials and volunteers organize and execute RAAM as a labor of love and they sincerely care about the safety of the riders and crew. There is just no way to make the race totally safe, in my opinion. Riders and crew members should know that going in.