Amy Snyder, author of HELL ON TWO WHEELS
Mike Wilson, contestant in the Race Across America
Related Story: Oceanside Hosts The World's Most Extreme Bicycle Race
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. In the run-up to today's primary, we've been talking a lot about political races. Sometimes we call them tough or gruelling races. Well, it turns out we're using those terms very loosely because if you want to hear about a real tough and gruelling race, you have to move out of the political arena and learn about the most extreme endurance race in the world. It's the bicycle competition called race across America, and it begins up in Oceanside next week. Joining me to explain what this race is and why people want to take on this challenge are my guests, Amy Snyder is a La Jolla resident and author of hell on two wheels. It telling the story of the race across America. Welcome to the show.
SNYDER: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Mike Wilson is one of the cycling competitors, he's been in several bicycle endurance races, but this is his first race across America. Welcome.
WILSON: Thank you so much.
CAVANAUGH: Amy, give us the nuts and bolts of the race across America, or RAM as it's called. What are the rules and how many miles do the cyclists have to cover?
SNYDER: It's a 3,000-mile long nonstop bike race. Once the gun goes off in Oceanside, they don't stop. And they trace a prescribed route in Oceanside, and ending up across the continent in Maryland, 3,000†miles later. It's a race described as the toughest test of endurance ever invented.
CAVANAUGH: How long does it take the people who win this race to get across America?
SNYDER: It's interesting. I don't know -- many of us have driven across the country, and these cyclists don't use highways, they use back roads. Imagine driving across the country on back roads, stopping at every stop sign, every traffic light. It takes the racers 8-9 days to do that. And I don't know about you, Maureen, I don't know that I could drive across the country like that in eight or nine-days.
CAVANAUGH: Absolutely not! How does this compare to a base we're more familiar with?
SNYDER: Well, the tour de France -- unlike the tour de France, this race isn't a pretty sight. It's an extreme test of endurance. The tour de France is a stage race, it takes 21 days, the racers race about five hours a day. At the end of the day, they get a lovely meal, a massage, sleep in a hotel room, then they do it again the next day. The race across America is half again as long, and the racers have between 8-12 days to complete it. There are no hotel rooms, there are no beds, there's maybe a massage here or there. But if you want to win this race, you have to keep racing and staying on your bike about 22 hours out of every 24 hour cycle.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Amy, before I read your book, hell on two wheel, I had never heard about this race. I found out, I believe it's in its 31st year. It starts here in San Diego County. Why is it so little known?
SNYDER: Well, it's actually a race that attracts the top ultracyclists from all over the world. In fact most of the field is not American. It is a race of international caliber that very too people know about in the U.S. let alone in San Diego, which is a shame. The race used to be much better known in the early '80s when it first kicked off. It was on ABC wideworld of sports. And ABC won emmies each year for the broadcast. And after it fell off TV, it fell into obscurity in the U.S. even as it became more popular and well-known in Europe.
CAVANAUGH: Let me speak to you one of the people who are actually going to take part in this race. Mike Wilson is here with us. I'm wondering, you have been in endurance races before on your bicycle. How do you train for something as gruelling as RAM?
WILSON: I think it's very difficult. Obviously it's difficult because the race is. I don't think the mentality is that much different than a marathon or a running race where you sort of try and train up in the weeks preceding the race about a third the distance. We did a three day training block where we covered tree hundred miles every day, and then slept for two hours, three hours. So we replicate the scenario, but it's not easy. And there's a lot of psychological training that goes into it as well, really staying on the bike, and trying to find joy in this bicycling. We love to ride, but sometimes when we ride this far, it can push the limits of the love.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: I can imagine it would! What kind of a support team do you have traveling with you?
WILSON: Fantastic group of friends and colleagues. About ten people will keep me on the road for the entire distance of the race. So we have 12 days to do the race. And basically for 10-12 days, I sign everything over to ten of my best friends in the world who will feed me, keep me pointed in the right direction, even four, five days on the race when my faculties depart a little bit mentally, they'll -- I think one of the famous competitors used to say, I'm the hardware, they're the software.
CAVANAUGH: When we talk about people going to the limit of their endurance, and even beyond in this race, some of the stories that you tell in your book are quite incredible. You say contestants sometimes throw down their bikes screaming, crying. What is that about?
SNYDER: My book hell on two wheels follows about eight or ten of the solo riders in the 2009 race. And the book, while it is about a bike race, is really about the personal journeys of these amazing athletes. And the question of why is the big question. Each racer, and Mike I hate to say this, it'll probably happen to you this year, each racer comes close to quitting this race more than once during the event. It takes people to their physical and mental limits and beyond. And the question of what keeps them going after they reach that limit is an interesting one. Each racer has a different reason to keep going. But all of them are at the deepest level of their psychological makeup are out there to prove something to someone or gain approval from somebody. And my book really attempts to put the personal psychological, spiritual goals of each of these amazing athletes in context. And that's really the only way that condition can truly understand this race.
CAVANAUGH: Just in an effort to have listeners understand what we're talking about here, they are actually unique physical injuries that these athletes are subject to. Tell us about what happens to some of these cyclists' necks
SNYDER: This is the physical malade that the race is more familiar of. After days and days, some fortunate racers experience a condition where the helpfuls that hold up the head suddenly give out. They lose all their strength, and the head flops down to the chest like a newborn baby. I cyclist will be unable to lift his chin off his chest. It's a horrifying and actually quite humiliating experience for a racer to undergo this. You don't see it anywhere other than the race across America. And often this will spell the demise of a racer's effort, and he will quit the race at that point.
CAVANAUGH: And yet some of the Jerry rigged photograph ares in the book on hell on two wheels, these things that actually keep their necks up. Some sort of a brace or something so they can continue this gruelling race.
SNYDER: Yeah, there's -- these racers are compelled. We call them crazy because the English language lacks a word for people who willingly inflict this sort of agony. But I don't use that word. These are individuals who are compelled to get to the finish line. But actually Maureen, are the toughest challenge isn't physical. It's mental as Mike alluded to.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Mike, I know that you see this race as part of a personal journey you've been on for several years now. A journey of personal transformation. Tell us about that
WILSON: Well, I got involved in road cycling probably about six years ago, and I kind of went the typical path where I was riding around San Diego and learned a little bit about riding and climbing and racing. And I just wasn't very good at short distance races. So I kind of learned that I had this knack for endurance in cycling. So I started doing 100-mile races, and 200-mile races, and I found that when other people were getting tired and slower, I was doing better. So I was doing loops of California for a great deal of the deserts, and I just got into ultracycling, and I found this passion. I found -- you talk a little bit about the psychology of it. Upon I had a knack for it, but also a knack for what if takes to do these kind of races, it's such a -- it's more than physical. It's a journey. And you learn a little bit about yourself every time you do a race like this. So it's just been a skill set that I kind of found, and I love it the
CAVANAUGH: And one of the things that -- you're taking on this challenge about, if I understand it correctly, it's your contention that people don't -- underestimate their own limits. They don't know what they can do.
WILSON: It's my dream that people can find a little bit of inspiration in our sole so RAM effort. I believe in myself, and I think that people that are success. In RAM, it's all about determination and our commitment to reach our goals. And I started off looking for a sport. I was overweight, I found this love of cycling, and now I believe with all my heart that I can do this race. And I hope people look at what we're going to accomplish in this race, and they say, you know, maybe cycling's not my sport, but when I put my head to it, maybe I'm not the best in the world at something, I'm never going to ride in the tour de race, but I can do this. This ultra thing, I can do it. And there are physical problems, and there are all these things that happen along the road. And I can't control tornadoes and rain. But it's not going to stop me. So there you go.
CAVANAUGH: Well, there you have it. Amy, for this book, you had to cover a race that is, as we've been talking about, incredibly gruelling, on the back roads of the United States. How did you actually do that? How did you see these athletes change?
SNYDER: Well, I met a lot of them before the race, I travelled all over the world, and I wanted to know who they were, and their family situation, then I followed the race for two weeks in a mini-van, and met with the athletes afterward as well. And when I called the race organization to say hey, I want to write a book about the race, they said come on down. They didn't tell me it was journalistically impossible. It was a really tough two weeks. The race goes on 24/7, and it's spread out over 700†miles as it progresses, and I had to be everywhere at once. I followed eight or ten racers who were spread out. And one thing I didn't know is that when you are sleep deprived, you don't form long-term memory. So if I missed talking to somebody one day, and asked them what happened, he couldn't tell me. So it was a real challenge to keep up to tabs on all of my racers, as the two weeks progressed. Frankly I don't know how I did it.
SNYDER: This race had never been chronicled before in this fashion, and now I know why.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Mike, how are going to eat while you're on the road?
WILSON: That's a great question. When you have our daily plan is about 10,000†calories every 24 hours. So if we imagine every moment I'm riding my bike, which is going to be about 21 hours a day, I'll be consuming a liquid nutrition. So it's a little bit like a milk shake, a substance in a small flask the team passes me every hour. So I consume my nutrition for every hour. And by that, it's easier for your stomach to deal with that. And you keep the motor running hour by hour through the day.
CAVANAUGH: I don't mean to be introducive here, but do you get bathroom breaks?
WILSON: It's up to the racer. Some people have the talent to not leave the bicycle when they do such a thing. I usually stop. I prefer to stop every few hours. But if you're racing, you're racing.
CAVANAUGH: And you also have that one or two hours of sleep each day.
WILSON: Yes, ma'am. That's really the challenge. It's a symphony of things, especially with my crew. Every day, somewhere in that window, when your natural circadian rhythms are screaming sleep, sleep, sleep, they crew will bring me in, and right to sleep.
CAVANAUGH: KPBS will be following the progress of Mike Wilson in the RAM with updates and photos on our website. I want to wish you the best of luck, Mike.
WILSON: Thank you so much.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much, Amy.
SNYDER: Thank you very much.