The end is just the beginning…
Approximately twenty miles east of Chillicothe, Ohio, on a lightning-illuminated Hwy 50, I stopped pedaling for the final time. I gently propped my trusty “red dragon” bicycle (a blood-red colored Trek Domane that had become an extension of my own body over the course of this race) against our support van, clambered inside, and slumped into the cozy comfort of the passenger seat dripping wet and utterly exhausted. Team Red Dragon’s math whizz and statistician, Tim Gill, had been crunching the numbers for me over the past several days since he joined the team a few miles outside Wichita, Kansas. As the race clock kept ticking, and my average speed had slowed, Tim’s formula for my reaching Annapolis by Sunday at 4:10 PM EST left little time to be off the bike, so this unplanned respite from the relentless storm outside was a significant setback. I turned to Bob, my stalwart Crew Chief, and murmured, “I think it’s over.” The other team members present – Tim, Susi, Mark, Dave, and Francis sat in silence.
I can only imagine their emotions at that time. They had all given so much to keep me propelled eastward, day and night, mile after mile over steep mountain passes, through deep forested valleys and sun-baked desert plains. Yet none of them protested my resignation. Perhaps it was because they, like Hank, no longer wanted to bear witness to my suffering. We had become brothers and sisters over the past two weeks, and their love for me (and for each other) undoubtedly meant that my safety and well-being took precedence over a singular goal of reaching the finish line. I would also like to think that they had come to understand, as I had, that this journey was, and still is, about relationships. The enlightenment of knowing the power and strength of human connection and intimacy had only become possible through the juxtaposition with a brutal and unforgiving bicycle race. Through shared suffering, exposed vulnerability, and deep trust, we had become one. Therefore, in a profound way, my decision to stop was also theirs, and there, in that van while God’s beautiful fury raged outside, we sat at peace with the decision, at peace with ourselves, at peace with each other, and at peace with humanity.
My losing battle against time certainly played a part in my decision to pull-out of the race, but it was only a part. Frank Fumich, a fellow RAAM solo racer, was also fighting against time. I had met Frank at a press conference the day before the RAAM start, and though the words passed between us were few, I felt a strong connection with him. Throughout the course of the race I would frequently ask my crew members, “Where’s Frank?” Frank finished the race, but cruelly he crossed the finish line outside the “official” time limit of 288 hours and therefore, like more than half the solo entrants in this year’s race, an ugly “DNF” (Did Not Finish) appears next to his name in the RAAM results page. I could have continued on, like Frank, knowing that completing the race distance was possible, but finishing within the time limit would be highly unlikely. I made a different choice. Fear of death played into that choice.
I have been uncomfortably close to being struck by lightning three times in my life. As a child I remember my dad driving our family through a storm in South West Wales while on a summer vacation. As we approached our RV park a lightning bolt struck the transformer in front of us. I remember being terrified. Nightmares followed for days. While on a run during a sultry afternoon outside Cheney, Washington, in 1989, I was caught off-guard by a summer thunderstorm that had crept-up behind me while I was busy belting out “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” by the Moody Blues playing on my Sony Walkman. By the time I felt the first drops of rain it was too late to take evasive action. I was in the middle of an open road surrounded by treeless pastures. The tallest structures were power-poles standing like sentinels every 100 feet or so alongside the road. Lightning struck the second one in front of me – a mere 200 feet away. I cowered beneath a dilapidated shed that I caught glimpse of in my frantic search for shelter until the storm blew over. Too close for comfort. The third close-call was a more visceral experience, and it occurred, ironically, while riding my bicycle (a $50 beach cruiser as opposed to a $5,000 RAAM race machine). It was 1992 and I was working as a sailing instructor on Alamitos Bay in Long Beach, California. The “sailing center” was a converted fire station built in the 1950’s. A brick chimney remained atop the building as a reminder of days gone by. I rounded the corner of the building anticipating that I would momentarily be out of harm’s way. I was mistaken. Before I could coast to the doorway lightning struck and shattered the brick chimney above me. A simultaneous flash of blinding light and deafening thunder caused me to let-out a terrifying shriek. I dropped the bicycle and ran inside. For minutes I stood there panting while the hair on my head and arms remained standing to attention. To an observer I imagine that my appearance was a confused confluence of Billy Idol, a porcupine, and a character from some forgettable Stephen King novel.
So perhaps it was understandable that I was reluctant to continue on during this June 22 storm. My fear was based on the experience of yesteryear. But more recent close calls, mere hours in the past, had also given me pause. I had fallen asleep three times on the bicycle in the preceding days. Twice during a muggy afternoon’s gentle descent into Trinidad, Colorado (TS 22) and once in a pre-dawn haze on a busy 4 lane highway into Greenville, Illinois (TS 36). During my first lapse I had felt the bike buckle beneath me and I quickly righted myself. The second episode had resulted in me drifting across the center divide and into the oncoming lane. The rumble-strip between the shoulder and the highway had jolted me awake in the third instance. Only good fortune and God’s protective embrace had prevented a calamitous confrontation with a vehicle. I realize now, well rested and sober from the sleep-deprived insanity that is RAAM, that such risk-taking is irresponsible and selfish. But common sense takes a back-seat to the will and determination to drive onward come hell or high water.
In my mind also this night was my out-of-body experience around the Lake of The Ozarks in Missouri. In a desperate attempt (which was ultimately successful) to meet a time cut-off at the Mississippi River time station (TS 35) I had ridden in a manic stupor for more than 115 miles overnight. So severe was my sleep-deprivation that I pedaled the entire time believing that my ride was not real. Every feature of the landscape, each billboard and building, hill and highway, were familiar to me, as though I had seen them a thousand times before. The reality was that I had never previously visited this part of the country. My delusion caused me to believe that the entire episode was a figment of my imagination, that this was all some self-created scene loosely assembled from snippets of prior life experiences. Far more sinister than hallucinations (more on those in a later post) my state of being plummeted me into an abundance of conspiracy theories that plagued my consciousness (or unconsciousness as the case may be) for miles. For example, I was certain that the individuals following me in the support van were not really my teammates (in this case Susi, Dave, and Francis) but rather actors in some elaborate scene from an after-life I had yet to come to terms with. On several occasions I spotted my dear friend Mark McGowan in the driver’s seat of our “spy vehicle” (a name given to the back-up follow vehicle that would often jump-ahead of the rider to see the position of rival racers) with my daughter, Seren, sleeping soundly in the passenger seat. My paranoia was such that I sneered at them as I went by, “You are not real, but I’ll play along with your silly game” I thought to myself. So crazy was my mental state I did the unthinkable. In order to prove to myself that this whole episode was a fabrication of my imagination I decided, on a downhill section of a busy 4-lane highway, to remove my hands from the handlebars just to see what would occur. What happened next will forever be a reminder of the thin line between life and death.
Coming next: Part 3 – America is alive and well