When Len Forkas opened his eyes, he was staring straight at an oncoming guardrail. The Reston, Virginia, native was so fatigued four days into his 2012 solo attempt at Race Across America (RAAM)—a single-stage race from Oceanside Pier, California, to Annapolis, Maryland—that he nodded off in his drops while careening 25mph down a 1,500-foot descent off of an 8,300-foot mountain pass into Durango, Colorado.
“I was so spent in the altitude I just fell asleep,” Forkas says. “I opened my eyes looking at a guardrail. If I had slept another two seconds, I would have catapulted over a 1,000-foot drop. There was nothing beyond the rail but air, trees, and rocks.”
Forkas, 52 at the time, ultimately finished in 11 days and four hours, winning his division and raising $350,000 for his children’s charity Hopecam along the way. He’s going back again this year with the goal to raise a million. “Thinking about these kids with brain tumors and terrible diseases gets me through whatever pain and suffering I face out there,” he says. (For even more inspiration to tackle RAAM or another ride of a lifetime, check out our Cyclist’s Bucket List, which includes breathtaking photos and descriptions of some of the most incredible cycling routes on the planet!)
Severe sleep deprivation (and its potentially disastrous consequences) is just one of the myriad physical obstacles RAAM racers like Forkas must overcome to make it coast to coast.
Many racers try to find safety in numbers as a team, but that’s no easy feat either.
“You go from the brutal heat of the desert straight into the high elevation of the mountains and then the torture of crossing the longest part of the state of Kansas that is so monotonous everyone is delirious… everyone suffers,” says Jamie Schlueter MD, who has crewed RAAM teams and is a US Olympic team doctor. “By the time you get to the Appalachians you’re just running on sheer adrenaline and will power. It’s brutal.”
Solo racers have 12 days to finish the event; teams have nine days. When you consider the following physical challenges they face, it’s little wonder only about half of the field makes it to Annapolis each year.
Elephant Ankles & Grapefruit Knees
If you want to make the time cut-offs, you need to keep pedaling, which means precious little time with your feet up. That means swelling in your lower extremities as gravity takes its toll.
“We use compression wear, but eventually everyone is walking around with big fat elephant ankles,” says Schlueter.
The exertion itself also can lead to pretty profound swelling, says Forkas.
“After a huge push over Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado, my knees looked like grapefruits,” he says. “I had to stop and put five pound bags of ice on them while my crew worked on me to get the swelling down.”
Dreaded Shermer’s Neck
If you’ve ever done a century ride, you know that it’s common to feel a little stiffness and soreness in your neck. When you do a couple of double or triple centuries day after day? There’s a chance your neck muscles will send up the white flag and surrender to gravity, leaving you unable to hold up your head.
The condition is deemed “Shermer’s Neck,” after one of the four cyclists who raced the inaugural RAAM; he had to literally hold up his head with one hand to finish the event. Since then, racers have become more inventive in their approaches to combat this potentially debilitating condition.
“We used a Pringles can taped to the bars with a sponge to rest the head on… called it the tower of power,” says RAAM veteran Katie Lindquist.
Visions of Killer Mailboxes and Ghosts
Sleep goes by the wayside when you have 3,000 miles to ride. Riders at the front of the pack are running on as little as 90 minutes to 3 hours a day—and sleep deprivation can lead to wicked hallucinations.
“People see crazy stuff,” says Forkas, who himself didn’t succumb to hallucinations, and believes he has an explanation for why. “I maintained a mostly liquid diet, so I could limit the amount of blood my stomach needed for digestion and retain as much blood as possible in my head,” he says.
The Sun Hurts Your Eyes
Staring out at the open road for more than a week is hard on the eyes, so much so that Forkas developed eyestrain and photophobia, or light sensitivity.
“After five days my eyes become extraordinarily sensitive to light,” he says. “I was using my darkest sunglasses and I could hardly tell they were on. It took my eyes a week to readjust to normal light and I was nearsighted for another week.”
You’re Starving—But Not One Bit Hungry
RAAM riders can expect to lose about 10 pounds on their cross-country journey. You’d think with all that exercise, you’d be famished. But after a few days, even those frozen Snickers you thought would be the most awesome thing ever just look awful.
“They’re burning 6,000 calories a day, but after four days riders are so completely nauseated they don’t want anything you put in front of them,” says Schlueter. “We pretty much force-fed them the blandest white foods, like mashed potatoes, we could come up with to keep them going.”
“Everyone cries at some point during RAAM. You’re working so hard on so little sleep, you’re bound to melt down emotionally in one way or another,” says Schlueter. “We had one rider who just got completely delirious. I thought she would need to go home. But we had her get a solid 4 or 5 hours of sleep and she was okay again.”
As if delirium and needing a can of Pringles to hold up your head weren’t enough, racers also need to contend with all the mundane pains, niggles, and obstacles common to everyday long-distance riders, like numb hands (Di2 shifters and wrist splints can help); dehydration (“IV fluids are very helpful,” says Schlueter.); overheating (ice-cold liquid and white arm sleeves soaked in ice water keep you cool); and, of course, saddle sores (“Never experienced pain like that in my life,” says Forkas. “Change your shorts three times a day.”)