Post-Race Reflections (Part 3)

Michael Davies-HughesThe Race

Losing the edge…..

There’s a scene from the wildly popular 1986 movie Top Gun when Cougar walks into his commanding officer’s room following a scary encounter with a Russian MiG-28 fighter plane and states “I’m holding on too tight. I’ve lost the edge.” He then “turns-in his wings” thereby giving-up his flight status as a Top Gun pilot. I’m no elite fighter pilot, but in a turnout on Hwy 50 on that wretchedly stormy night on June 22, I essentially followed Cougar’s lead and informed my commanding officer (Crew Chief, Bob Schoenherr) that I was “holding on too tight.”

Ironically, “holding on too tight” was the antithesis of the action I took during my manic, sleep-deprived push between Camdenton and Jefferson City, Missouri. I did the unthinkable, at least what someone in a rational state of mind would consider unthinkable. As I careened down a steep grade on that 4-lane highway in the middle of the night as spit, fury and delirium took full hold of my being, I released my hands from the relative safety of the red dragon’s handlebars and awaited the unfolding of the next scene from this elaborate stage production that my sleep-starved brain believed was a fraud. “If it’s not real, then I can’t get hurt,” I remember thinking. As my hands detached and I began to sit-up on the only remaining point of contact with my bike (save my pedal/cleat connection) I felt a sharp draft of air push-up against the left side of my body. I glanced-over to see, seemingly inches away, an eighteen-wheeled juggernaut brush past me in a rush of thundering metal and machinery. Instinctively I leaned forward and grasped the handlebars firmly with both hands. Disaster averted, at least for the time-being. But here again was a reminder that I was “losing the edge” and “holding on too tight.” It would be another 70 hours before I ultimately “turned-in my wings.”

For the Camdenton to Jefferson City section, that 57-mile stretch that almost cost me more than just the race, resident Team Red-Dragon statistician, Tim Gill, had set an average speed goal for me of 15.1 mph. As I leaned hard into the final steep hill that gave way to the short run-in to TS 33 I glanced at my bike computer. Through eyes that had shown me the true happenings of the past four hours despite the brain’s deception and rejection of its own companion organ, the dim backlight of my Garmin displayed encouraging digits – 16.1 mph! Tim and Hank both shook their heads in disbelief as I coasted to a stop outside the 5th wheel “mothership.” The celebration was short-lived, however, as Tim unfolded his laptop and gave me my next mission; I needed to make-it to Washington, Missouri, a 71-mile stretch, by 9 AM. After a quick self-medication of my saddle sores that had been a constant and painful presence since the third day of this cruel race, I was off again with the Team Red Dragon follow vehicle (a donated 2005 Chevy Astro Van we affectionately called the “little white dragon”) in hot pursuit. It was a little after 4 AM.

It was during this pre-dawn push to TS 44 that I crossed the race’s 2,000 mile mark. There was little fanfare. An overnight rain had left the air thick and heavy. A “rooster tail” of water kicked-up by my rear wheel over the wet road surface took aim at the small of my back and trickled down my Bag Balm-impregnated bike shorts’ chamois pad, adding to the discomfort of the inflamed saddle sores. Up ahead were the familiar flashing amber lights of another racer’s follow-vehicle. Each racer is required to have a “direct follow” support vehicle trailing within twenty-feet from 7PM to 7AM throughout the race. This one belonged to none other than the indomitable Seana Hogan, a six-time RAAM winner and women’s record holder. Still a little “out of it” after the brief rest at Jefferson City I pressed-on with Tim’s goal for me firmly stamped on what was left of my cognition. “You’ve got this Seana!” I remember exclaiming as I whirred by the legend just as the sun was dipping its toe into the muggy, misty morning. Onward I pressed. The relative flatness of the first forty miles of this section now gave way to seemingly endless steep pitches. On any pre-RAAM training ride in Humboldt County these rises would have been tackled with ease – welcomed even as an affirmation that the months of preparation had honed my legs into hill-climbing machines. But this was not a training ride. A punishing 2,000 miles in eight days had weakened my legs and my resolve. My usually brisk and snappy pedal cadence devolved into a laborious chug; it wasn’t pretty. Every crested hill I regarded with dread knowing that yet another incline lay just out of sight beneath a canopy of drippy White Ash and Slippery Elm.

After what seemed like an eternity I swung into the Washington time station and stared at my Garmin. 8:55 AM, a full five minutes ahead of schedule! I was too tired to be relieved. I just wanted to get off the bike. The kind volunteers of TS 34 had erected a large “above ground” pool for the RAAM racers to cool off. I didn’t just jump in. I dove in with wild abandon caring not that I was fully dressed in my cycling kit. I lay there a full ten minutes before Bob reminded me that we were running out of time for one last push to the Mississippi River time station, TS 35. There are three intermediate time-cutoffs in RAAM; Durango, CO, Mississippi River, MO, and Mount Airy, MD. Racers who do not make it to these time stations within the allowable time can be pulled from the race. The Mississippi River time station at West Alton, Missouri, must be reached 192 hours after the race start. For me, that meant that I needed to arrive no later than 3:10 PM local time. By the time I was back on the road with a fresh cycling kit, it was nearing 9:30 AM. It was going to be close.

Once again, my mind became mush, and I can honestly say that the miles from Washington to West Alton were a messy mix of half-baked sensations. I needed to average 16.1 mph for this section and by the time we reached the flat basin of the mighty Mississippi River I was fighting just to maintain 15 mph. Quickly, Dave Larsson, the team’s bike mechanic, set me up on the sleek time-trial bike, a stealthy speed machine with torpedo-shaped tubes and deep-dish carbon wheels. If there was any chance for us to make it to West Alton by the time cut-off, it would only be possible aboard this wind-cheating jet. But here is where things unraveled. I didn’t ride faster. Instead my pace slowed, and despite my crew’s yells and cheers at every corner, and in defiance of the absence of hills, the average speed displayed on the Gamin slowly but surely ticked downward. When it reached 14.4 mph with less than 20 miles to go, I simply stopped, dismounted my bike and dropped it to the ground. Clearly, in mental and physical distress, I stumbled awkwardly forward on strengthless legs and almost fell into Bob as he approached me. So close, and yet so far. In my mind, this was it. Game over. At that moment I could not imagine the miracle that was about to transform my soulless spirit and resurrect my broken body.

Stay tuned for Race Reflections, Part 4: There’s no “I” in “Team.”