Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Post-Race Conversation with Rob

 (Photo: Joe Murphy)

It took a little longer than planned, but here are some final thoughts from Rob about this year's RAAM experience.

Q: You completed your third Race Across America a couple of months ago. How do you feel? Any long-term effects?
Overall I felt very good during and after this RAAM. I was very surprised how quickly I recovered, and within two weeks after the race I actually had some motivation to go out and ride a little. The one area that did suffer was both my hands, especially my right one. During the last 500 miles of the race I started to experience both a tingling and numbing sensation (in my hands). I knew that I was doing some serious damage, but I only had another 35 hours to ride, so I continued forward and hoped for the best.  When I returned home, I immediately went to the doctor, and within a few weeks, and after some therapy, I ended up having a carpal tunnel release surgery. The doctor feared permanent nerve damage.  The fingers on my right hand are still numb (but getting better), and I still have trouble with fine motor skills. The doctor is hopeful that I should have a full recovery in 6-8 months.

Q: When will you get back on a bike?
Again, the doctor is hopeful for a full recovery in 6-8 months if I avoid putting further pressure on my hands (from the bike).  I am going to follow his advice and stay off the bike, as I am totally committed to getting better.  This will be difficult because I love the bike and the training lifestyle.

Q: You improved to your best finish ever - 7th - yet this was your slowest crossing ever. In fact, it seems like everyone was a lot slower than predicted (Jure Robic missed his goal by 24 hours) and there were a lot of people who dropped out. Were this year's course and conditions particularly hard?

In general, the course did not feel any more difficult than any other year. RAAM is always hard.  It was 100 degrees in the desert the first day and the major climbs the second day up through Yarnell (AZ), Prescott, Cottonwood,  also presented an early challenge. The high climbs of the Rockies on day three were also tough.  This year Kansas was wet and cool, while I remember that in 2008 (and from reading reports of the 2009 race), Kansas was almost 100 degree everyday.  I'm not sure what is worse, cold/wet, or hot/humid.  I think Jure Robic did hit severe thunderstorms and pouring rain all through Colorado.  That is a challenging component of this race, you can be a few hours behind (or ahead) of other riders, and experience totally different weather patterns - some in your favor, sometimes not. Regarding the drop rate: every year, and history shows that 50 percent who start RAAM will drop out.  So I think the numbers were about the same for this year as well.

Q: If you could change anything about your execution of the race, what would it be?
Tough question.  After five attempts at this race I always look back and say: "Did I start too hard or too slow?"  I have to say that this year I felt exceptionally fit, and ready to go right from the beginning.  With that said, I went out hard and fast.  I think that I did 437 miles the first 24 hours, and 605 miles after the first 36 hours (this was also the time of my first sleep break).  

When I woke up near Tuba City, AZ, I found myself in 3rd place overall.  This was very exciting and motivating news, and I continued to ride hard.  My RAAM strategy was always to get as many miles in before your body starts to "decay" rapidly.  I continued with a good pace and some of the riders who I "beat" to eastern Colorado started to pass me.  One example, the Australian rider, Matthew Warner-Smith and I rode near each other well into Colorado, and when he passed me I never had the "gas" to catch him again.  Warner-Smith went on to place 3rd overall, and he seemed to ride conservative in the beginning, and I did not.  I remember back in 2000 I rode very slow the first 48 hours in an attempt to save something for later.  When later came (2000 miles into the race), I still felt like I was just didn't have the horsepower to make up time that I lost in the beginning.  That is the diabolical challenge of RAAM: It's very difficult to nail down the perfect formula for an effective time across the United States.

Q: You talked a little to the RAAM media team about the sleep deprivation-induced hallucinations this year. Were they worse, not as bad or about the same as past RAAMs?
Great subject matter.  My hallucinations on RAAM are legendary (at least in my own eyes and brain).  Dating back to my very first RAAM in 1996, as sleep deprivation set in, I started to see the vegetation and rock formations along the road take on human-like forms.  For example, some of the weeds, or vegetation that grows along the shoulder and onto the pavement takes on a form of a green, leafy, plant-like shoe, or as they were coined in 1996: "elf shoes".

These elf shoes are perfectly lined-up along the white line for miles, and miles. It is not uncommon for me to point them out to the crew as the race wears on.  Also, the trees along the sides of the road start to look like big, leafy people, slowly moving towards me on the bike.  The funny thing is that for all five of my RAAM's these images have basically remained the same.

Q: Talk about the crew. It seems like they were really on the ball this year.
Yes the crew was awesome.  I have been very fortunate to have great support teams for all my ultra races, but this year's crew was very special.  There was a bond right from the start out in Oceanside, CA.   From the bike it appeared that everyone became very close and friendly with one another.  As a result everyone worked well with one another and there was always a good feel when they dealt all the issues that the race can present.  There was a great blend of veterans and rookies on the team, and the age range was 18 to 60 years old.  Everyone seemed to compliment and respect each other, and we had a million laughs.

Q: You seemed like you really enjoyed the race most of the way. Other than the last day, when all racers are just exhausted, was there any other point in the race that you just hated?
Not really, I felt very motivated and engaged for most of the race.  I really tried to just ride my race and not complain too much.  It is difficult to whine and cry about the race after I've voluntarily spent the last 15+ years training and preparing to race in RAAM.  No one is holding a gun to my head to do this race, and the motivating factors have come from within, so I did not want to put the crew on the spot and complain too much.  RAAM is such an awesome event in anyone's life and I truly had a ride of a lifetime.  I really felt like the crew enjoyed most of the race as well.

Q: How much of a motivator was the memory of your mom and raising money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation?
This was a huge.  Countless, countless times during the race I called on the many great memories that I had with my mother over the years.  I am getting choked up now just thinking about her.  When times were tough out there, I would think of her, and how she suffered during her last few months as she lost her fight to cancer.  My physical issues were minor (and temporary) compared to what she had to deal with.  During the race the crew would inform me how folks back home were donating money to such a great cause (the LAF), and his always put a smile on my face.  Also, as many of you know, the night before we left for California to start the race, one of my co-workers, Officer. Don Hassiak was hit and killed while riding his bike to work.  This really affected me, and I often thought about Donnie and his family during the race.

Q: Some long-time high school friends came out to see you on the course in Colorado and Maryland. Was that a motivator?
It was awesome and very thoughtful that people took the time out their busy lives to come out on the course and visit me.  My high school girlfriend drove three hours (each way) to meet me in Trinidad, CO.  I remember riding (into Trinidad) at 8:00 AM on a rainy Sunday morning and Julie and her husband were standing there waiting for me.  I stopped, brushed my teeth, and changed my shoe covers.  I felt bad because the visit only lasted 10 minutes or so, and I wanted to talk a little longer.  Another time in Maryland, and on the last night of the race, Robin Gonzales and her husband came out to see me as well. I was tired, it had just rained, and it was a real boost to see some familiar faces.  At this same time, my wife Kate, and her sister, Michelle, and the official Team Morlock/RAAM blogger, Bill Baker arrived. What a treat this was to see my wife after a nine-day absence.  We could barely hold back the tears of excitement when we embraced in the parking lot of a grocery store time station in Hancock, MD. They leap-frogged me from Maryland to the finish, and even though I complained a lot, they supported me to the end. 

Q: The planning, the training, the logistics and the race itself seem just overwhelming. Was this your last RAAM? Will you continue to race in other ultra-distance races?
Wow, isn't that the truth!  All those things (training, logistics, the race, etc.) are so so time consuming.  Historically, I have always have been very hands-on in all of the race logistics.  I am very involved in all the preparations, including the van, RV, flight reservations, crew selections, sponsor liaison, bike and van set-up, and on and on.  I have been criticized for being too involved, but I have learned over the years that  I really enjoy every facet of the race, and this includes all the events that occur in the background before and after the event.

Of course, I really love the training.  Every since Bill Baker introduced me to my first real "racing" bike almost 25 years ago, I have been hooked.  No other hobby or activity even comes close to the passion that I have for cycling, and especially ultra-marathon cycling.

I am the type of person that needs a "project" in my life.  If it is not RAAM, then it is working around our house, manicuring each and every blade of grass.

So, let me just say this: I love RAAM!  I have been having a love affair with this race ever since the mid-80's when I first saw it on ABC's Wide World of Sports.  After watching it year to year, I remember telling my mom that one day I want to race in RAAM.  Of course, she said "Oh Rob, I think you should." If I am not racing, I have been known to drive to the finish line to get my fix.  But, with all that said, this was my last RAAM.  The nerve compression that I sustained to my hand this time really has scared me as to the types of serious injuries that sitting on a bike for 10 days can inflict on one's body.  I will, however, continue to race in ultra-distance races.  In fact, and depending how my hand responds, I have plans to race in the 850 miler RAW (Race Across the West).  The RAW starts with RAAM in California and ends in Durango, CO.  I am very excited about this one, 850 miles is a good distance (for me) to "race", and still experience all the joys of ultra-distance cycling. I will also continue to race in other 12/24 hour, and 500 mile events.  I still feel strong and very motivated to race. 

Q: As a three-time RAAM finisher, do you have any advice to an aspiring solo RAAM  rider out there?
I have plenty advice that I would love to share. Occasionally I do get emails from young aspiring RAAM hopefuls out there seeking tips, which I love by the way!  Anyone out there reading this, and you have any questions about RAAM and/or ultra cycling, please email me at raam542[at]  I would be more than happy to help anyone out.  In the meantime, here is some quick advice: train smart and build a good mileage base, get properly fitted on your bicycle, choose your saddles, shoes, and pedals carefully, dial in your nutrition (find a product like Spiz  and use it during training and racing), and most of all commit yourself to the sport.  There are no shortcuts in ultra-cycling, and it is not for everyone.  There is nothing like it in life. 

One more important thing, save your money (and/or get some good sponsors), because RAAM is expensive!  Enjoy the journey!