Luck of the Irish (not the Welsh)
In my previous blogs I have tried to capture some of the extreme physical and psychological challenges encountered during Team Red Dragon’s Race Across America, and I will continue to do so in future post-race reflections. There were, however, light-hearted moments that provided a welcome comic relief from the brutality of the race. Once such instance took place on the busy city streets of Oxford, Ohio shortly after I departed from TS 41 on the morning of June 21. After 2,450 miles of racing I collided with an Irishman.
On the afternoon of June 11, the day before the RAAM start, each RAAM solo racer and each RAW solo and team racer (Race Across the West – Oceanside to Durango, CO) attended a mandatory meeting where race administrators shared a host of “dos” and “don’ts” as well as last-minute route adjustments. Leaving the crowded community building adjacent to Oceanside Pier and making our way down “The Strand,” a narrow strip of road running parallel to the beach, we caught-up to a group of athletic lads and lasses clad in matching green t-shirts. Their gently sunburned legs were tell-tale beacons of their recent arrival to this sun-kissed Southern California shoreline. A familiar foreign accent further revealed their origin. Irish! Growing-up on the northwest peninsula of Wales, the silhouette of the mountains of Wicklow, south of Dublin, were visible to me on rare clear-skied evenings. The four RAAM riders: Arthur, Padraig, Gavin and Gerard along with their 10-strong crew made-up Team Donegal Ireland that would be departing four days after us solo racers. After a good chin-wag with this great group of fellow-Celts we parted ways with a promise to reconnect over a few adult beverages in Annapolis. Instead, our paths crossed, quite literally, about 650 miles west of the agreed-upon rendezvous point.
The storm of the previous evening had given way to a warm and cloudless morning above the streets of Oxford where I was doing my best to hug the almost non-existent right shoulder of a city street long overdue for resurfacing. Traffic was heavy, and not all the drivers appreciated competing for asphalt real estate with a spandex-clad distraction weaving in a sleep-deprived stupor on the side of the road. Up ahead a large intersection loomed. As I began to slow I glanced rearward and caught a glimpse of another rider quickly bearing down on me. Within an instant he had pulled alongside. “Welshman, how are ya?” It was Arthur McMahon from Team Donegal! “Arthur! Fancy meeting you here!” I countered. To say that I was happy to see him would be a massive understatement. In an effort to acknowledge my delight in a more physical fashion I attempted an ill-fated handshake while still whirring along toward the intersection ahead. After 9-days of near-continuous riding my bike-handling skills were not what they used to be or what they needed to be for a “mano a mano” gesture of brotherhood on a bustling boulevard. No sooner had my right hand left the handlebar than my front wheel listed precipitously toward Arthur’s. The inevitable collision of carbon sent me skyward as the red dragon bowed in deference to the Irishman’s green chariot. Arthur also tumbled downward, albeit in a less spectacular fashion. He was quickly back on his bike, but not before checking on the well-being of the Welshman spreadeagle before an audience of amused Ohioans. “Are you alright, Welshman? Oh my goodness, I feel so bad!” I was quickly to my feet, my primary concern being the condition of my trusty Trek Domane. “I’m fine, Arthur. Go, go, go!” I implored, and before I could fully assess the condition of my already battered body, he was well on his way. “I’ll be sure to buy you a beer when we get there, Welshman!” I heard him say, before Arthur became a vanishing visage of green accelerating to Annapolis. There were no broken bones, and save for a fresh layer of road rash on my left arm, hip, and knee, I was as good as could be expected for a man who had managed to travel unscathed almost 2,500 miles on a bicycle across the United States before being brought down by an Irishman on the streets of Ohio. At least I’d be getting a beer out of the deal.*
I managed to stay upright on my bicycle during another two amusing and unexpected events that I can now look back upon with wonder and amazement! The first occurred in the gently rolling hills of Eastern Kansas. It was dusk, and I was enjoying the din created by swarms of locusts taking refuge from the quickly gathering night in the American sycamores lining this quiet stretch of road. I had been riding on fumes of sleep for the past two-days. As I geared-down to accommodate for the uphill section ahead I glanced towards the trees. But it was not the trees I saw. Instead, it was a man on a mountain bike. Not any man, but a friend from Eureka. “Interesting,” I thought to myself. “What’s he doing here?” A closer analysis revealed that he was not really riding alongside me, but rather, above me; a full ten feet or more above the ground! “Well, my goodness,” I thought to myself. “This is a first.” My friend was not really there. He/it was a hallucination, a fairly common experience for ultra-endurance athletes who have been on a multi-day diet of sleep-deprivation and exertion. I looked away and looked to my right again. He was still there, riding happily above me. It was a full five minutes before his image faded into the now-still sycamores.
It was just after daybreak east of Bloomington, Illinois, when I had my second encounter with the unreal. The hour or so immediately before and after dawn had become really tough for me in terms of feeling the full weight of sleepiness. During that time period I came to long for a comfy bed and the opportunity to drift-off into a dream that didn’t involve pedaling and self-medication of saddle sores. But this was RAAM, and such thoughts had no place in the world’s toughest bicycle race. Instead, my mind created yet another illusion, and this one was even more bizarre than my experience with a levitated mountain-biking buddy from Eureka who showed-up unannounced in Eastern Kansas.
I had just bottomed-out from a pleasant 3-mile downhill section into a plateau of open fields skirting a freshly-paved windy road. I was riding on the grey concrete shoulder and admiring the smooth black finish of the two-lane highway to my left. I looked up to see the sun peeking-out of the eastern sky, and I wondered what challenges and opportunities this day would bring. The answer came quickly. I again looked to my left, but the velvety asphalt was no more. Instead the highway was a finely meshed netting suspended high above a tropical rainforest that I could clearly see hundreds of feet below. I was riding on some form of raised bikeway adjacent to the spectacle. I vividly recall how beautiful the lush jungle looked below. But I also recognized with some lucidity that despite what my eyes were seeing, this was an imaginary world. Another hallucination.
In stark contrast to my 30+ hours in Missouri where my brain failed to believe what was real, with almost fatal consequences, these two hallucinations were gentle and pleasant experiences where my eyes provided full disclosure to my brain that they were merely playing an imaginary game. As the transparent roof to the rainforest closed once more, replaced by the fine work of Illinois’ Department of Transportation, I was left to wonder once more what surprises this incredible race had in store for me. A less benign encounter with nature would soon push-aside the pleasurable proceedings of the Prairie State.
* As of this writing, Arthur still owes me a beer.
Join me for Part 6: Hope in Humanity