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San Diegan Mike Wilson To Race Across America

Editor's note: Follow Mike Wilson's daily race progress here at KPBS.org.

Evening Edition

Above: A bike race that may be the most grueling endurance test in all of sports begins Wednesday, June 13, 2012, in Oceanside. The Race Across America, or RAAM, is a nearly 3,000-mile nonstop bike race that’s a feast of pain and sleep deprivation. This year a San Diegan is doing it. KPBS Reporter Tom Fudge has this profile of cyclist Mike Wilson. (Video by Katie Euphrat)

Aired 6/12/12 on KPBS News.

Cyclist Mike Wilson has his heart set on finishing the most grueling contest on the sporting world.

— San Diego is a pretty good place to do bike training because there are lots of steep slopes, like the one Mike Wilson climbed on his way to the top of Torrey Pines State Park during a recent workout. But if you want to know what it’s like to peddle through the June heat of the desert, you’ve got to bundle up.

“Doing this desert training on an overcast day on the coast is difficult,” Wilson said as he caught his breath at the top. “So you got to add four or five layers (of clothing).”

Mike Wilson should know. He’s about to strike out across the desert, the Rockies, the Great Plains and Appalachia in a race that most people are just happy to finish, to say nothing of winning.

The race is called Race Across America, RAAM for short. It may be the most grueling endurance test in all of sports. It begins tomorrow in Oceanside; a nearly 3,000-mile bike race, taking place over eight days, that’s a feast of pain and sleep deprivation.

This year, San Diegan Mike Wilson will be taking part.

Wilson is an amiable 38-year-old, born in Alabama, who still addresses people as “sir” and “ma’am.” He said he got into cycling in his early thirties, when he was carrying about 260 pounds on his six-foot two-inch frame.

“A friend gave me a bicycle and said, ‘If you want to lose a little weight try riding a bike up and down the Strand in Coronado,’” said Wilson. “So I did that once. Then I did it twice.”

Mike Wilson of San Diego is a rookie contestant in the Race Across America.
Enlarge this image

Above: Mike Wilson of San Diego is a rookie contestant in the Race Across America.

Then he rode 100 miles back and forth along the Strand. Soon he did a 200-mile trek.

“So I thought if I can do 200 miles, why not one of these 500-mile races?” he added. “I’d heard of this race called Furnace Creek. It’s like 509 miles out in Death Valley. And that sounds kind of crazy, and I’m kind of crazy, so let’s do something crazy.”

Wilson, incidentally, solved his weight problem. He’s now 167 pounds. But if you want to talk about crazy, Furnace Creek was nothing.

The rules for Race Across America are pretty simple. The cyclists begin at the Oceanside Pier, and they head east along a designated route. The first person to cross the finish line in Annapolis, Maryland wins. There are no requirements to take breaks; there are no restrictions on when you can ride.

In other words, if you can ride nonstop with no sleep, no meals or bathroom breaks, more power to you.

Amy Snyder is author of a book about RAAM called "Hell on Two Wheels." Snyder said the drive to go non-stop for eight or nine days, with as little as three hours a day of sleep, causes people to endure tremendous pain.

The pain and sleep deprivation can cause riders to become mentally disoriented. In some cases, they lose their ability to hold their heads up when those muscles fail with fatigue.

Mike Wilson likes to quote the late Slovenian cyclist Yure Robic, a 5-time winner of the Race Across America.

“I hate this race. I hate everything about it. I don’t want to be here,” Wilson said as he paraphrased Robic. “But every other day of my life, it’s all I can think about.”

Although Wilson is a solo cyclist, he’s not doing RAAM alone. His girlfriend, a nurse anesthetist, will follow along to help keep him healthy and fed.

In fact, Wilson has a whole a volunteer crew that will follow in three vehicles. They’ll shield him from cars, massage him, encourage him and repair his bikes. Wilson’s job is helping to run a sporting goods company. But many of his volunteer crew members are retired police officers, with whom he recently cycled to Encinitas for breakfast.

“When RAAM came up (a friend) and I said, ‘If you want any help, if you need someone to be on your team, let us know,’” said Dalana Pursel, one member of Wilson's crew. “We were very honored when in November he said, ‘Are you still good for it?’ We both said sure!”

Some members of the crew couldn’t answer the question of why Wilson would put himself through the agony of RAAM.

“There’s no prize money. We all sat around and said to him, ‘What’s the prize at the end of the ride?” said Gil Dominguez, one of Wilson’s cycling buddies. Still, Dominguez said he understood what Wilson's prize would be, and why he would do this.

“Because it’s there! It’s like the guy who climbs Mount Everest. He does it because it’s there, and he feels the desire to do so,” he said.

The natural human madness that causes people do set out on tremendous challenges and adventures will bring Mike Wilson to the Oceanside starting line Wednesday morning, where he will begin the Race Across America.

Wilson is a rookie in this contest. And he said, for a rookie, just finishing will be like winning a gold medal.

Video by Katie Euphrat

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