Race Across America

It’s called the world’s toughest endurance bicycle race, but chances are you haven’t heard of it.

For endurance cyclists like me, The Race Across America, or RAAM, is the biggest of the big: like the Super Bowl during the NBA Finals held on Mount Everest. Plus a dose of extreme sleep deprivation.

Here’s the race: ride from the Pacific Ocean to Atlantic Ocean on a bicycle in just over a week. Held annually for the past 34 years, RAAM also holds the distinction as one of America’s longest continually held races of any kind. And only 200 people have ever finished it. Compare that to the more than 2,000 people who have reached Everest’s summit. (In fact, an Austrian cyclist who climbed Everest and completed RAAM once said, “Everest is more dangerous, but RAAM is much harder.”)

RAAM shares characteristics with other long distance cycling events, but it’s in a category all its own. There are no stages. There are no rest days. It is 50 percent longer than the Tour de France and the winner normally completes it in about a third of the time. You go through 12 states. Over 170,000 vertical feet of climbing. Solo riders like me, who according to RAAM rules are forbidden from drafting or riding in packs, will have to complete the 3,000-plus mile journey in a maximum of 12 days — which comes out to an average of 250-350 miles per day.

By the time you read this article, I will have begun, starting in Oceanside, CA on my way to the finish in Annapolis, MD in under 12 days.

My goal is to try to win the race.

If that sounds crazy, wait until you hear how fast previous winners have done it.

To keep pace with Christoph Strasser, of Austria, the returning winner and all-time RAAM record holder, I’ll need to finish the race in about eight days. (An American hasn’t won RAAM since 2003.)

So by now you’re thinking, “Does this guy have a screw loose? Why is he doing this?”

Actually, most people know me first as Assistant Professor Toone. Just a couple weeks ago, I was still finishing up the school year, grading assignments, holding office hours and teaching students in my job in the math department at Samford University, in Birmingham, Alabama. I am married to my beautiful wife, Kristine Toone, who is a runner and the mother of my daughter Analise (10) and Josiah (8). In my free time, I make time to ride — often hundreds of miles a week on a bike.

I love teaching, but one of the perks of being a nine month faculty member is the three months of summer I can set aside for bike racing. Even during this past spring semester, my teaching schedule, which saw all my classes land on just three days a week, gave me ample time to fit in bike racing. This meant that if I could also arrange student and faculty meetings for those days, then my Tuesdays and Thursdays were free to do long rides. How long? As much as 300 miles in a single day. That’s the only way to train for a race like RAAM, which is more than a week’s worth of back-to-back 300-mile races. If you want to run marathons, you have to train by running marathons. If you want to race across America in eight days, it’s a bit harder to train for.

In recent weeks and months, I’ve been trying to replicate the experience of RAAM: on days I don’t teach, I sleep for a couple hours in the evening, set my alarm for midnight, jump on the bike by 1 am. Then I ride all day, until sunset, as far as 315 miles. (I make it back home just before the kids go to bed, a full day later.)

One of the biggest challenges riders say they face during RAAM is sleep deprivation. That’s why so few racers ever finish. Because there are no set stages, the winner of RAAM is frequently the rider who can simply keep riding the longest with the least amount of sleep. Riders suffer extreme sleep deprivation, there’s no two ways about it.

To keep pace, my goal is to ride 21 hours per day — with three hours set aside for sleep. Believe it or not, three hours a night is more sleep than most RAAM racers plan for (some riders sleep an average of one hour over 8-12 days), but I’m hoping I can make up for the extra sleep by being fresher and pushing the pace faster when others are slowing down. (It is a crazy world when three hours is a “lot” of sleep, but welcome to RAAM.) Even so, there will be times where I will be forcing myself to stay awake for hours at a time. Hallucinating is common among RAAM racers, I’ve been told.

I’ve experienced the agony of riding through sleep deprivation in the past — most recently in a race called the Heart of the South 500. It’s a race that begins at night, meaning riders have likely been up an entire day before the race even starts. By the end of that race, I had been awake for close to 48 hours. The battle to stay awake was epic. Imagine your head drooping down and then you suddenly jolt yourself awake almost immediately starting to droop again. And the whole time you’re speeding along on a bicycle, wrapping around turns and going up and down hills. And it’s night time. It’s an awful and disorienting feeling because all you want to do is sleep, but you have to somehow keep battling yourself to stay awake.

RAAM will be like four of those races, back to back. No sleep till Annapolis.

You have to love cycling to want to compete in RAAM, and I do really love it. I wouldn’t put up with the pain otherwise. My background in cycling starts out as a mountain bike racer in high school in 1993-1994, followed by a switch to primarily road racing with the Clemson University collegiate cycling team from 1994-1998. During grad school at UC Davis, where I got my PhD in computer science, I raced a few times with the collegiate cycling team. Grad school was difficult for me, though, and I didn’t get to ride or race very much from 1999-2004. Moving back to Alabama in 2005, I discovered that even with the teaching and research duties at Samford, I still had plenty of time to ride my bike again and dove headfirst back into racing. By the end of 2007 I had earned my upgrade to Category 1 — the highest level of amateur racing in the U.S., which meant that throughout 2008-2015 I have been racing alongside pro cyclists since many of the top regional races are Pro/Am races.

With this background, I differ from the traditional RAAM racer, who has usually worked into ultra endurance racing from a touring or triathlon background — or from the beginning has been racing ultra endurance races. Part of the reason I wanted to compete in RAAM is to test my limits as a cyclist in the hardest race there is. In a way, I’ve been training for 20 years for this.

One of the biggest surprises so far in my training for RAAM has been discovering new parts of the state of Alabama. Prior to training for RAAM, I would ride for 5-6 hours at a time on some pretty intricate routes staying within 20-25 miles radius of Birmingham. Setting aside 20 hours for a bike ride meant that I could branch out into all corners of the state. Alabama has 67 counties, and I have ridden in 52 of those counties since January of this year. I have ridden to Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi — leaving from my house and then making it all the way back home on the same day. Along the way, I’ve ridden in many rural areas and seen so much natural beauty and diversity our state has to offer giving rise to the nickname “Alabama the Beautiful.” It’s a fitting description.

Now I’ll get a chance to see the wide expanse of the rest of the country, from the seat of a bike. You can safely say it’s not your typical summer vacation. But I hope you’ll follow along as I make my way to the finish line. And do me a favor, get some sleep this week. I won’t be getting any.