Following are excerpts from Mark Abramson’s account of the event.
It All Began…
Erika Barajas, the wife of a good friend and teammate of theirs, Albert, has been battling breast cancer. The incredible part of her battle is that she was diagnosed when pregnant with their second child. She put off all of the cancer treatments until after the baby was delivered and was given six months to live. Three years later, her battle continues but the Barajas family (and two beautiful children) are a testament to how strong human beings can be. The 8 man team served as a fundraising vehicle (with our eight bikes to be auctioned off) for the Breast Cancer Fund, with the donation made in honor of Erika’s battle with Breast Cancer. Erika has a great informative website: http://www.zippis.com/
Team Beat Cancer ready to take the challenge.
THE RACE BEGINS
We all lined up for the start, got called to the line and began the parade out to the official start where Kam would kick things off with an eight-mile TT effort before the first rider swap. The parade was all of the RAAM riders cruising (with hundreds of other riders behind) along a San Diego bike path, swapping tales of previous adventures. The pink train was in perfect formation the entire way. Upon arrival at the official start, we all (except Kam and his TT bike) hopped into the support vehicles and cruised ahead to the first time station. Our start position was the first team, but teams came after the solo riders at 30-second intervals, so we were about 20 minutes after the first solo rider.
All of the riders flew through the time station at a quick pace, certainly faster than they would average for the rest of the race. We had our first team in action here, swapping on and off as they made their way to and up Palomar Mountain, the first significant climb of the race. I was in a vehicle that would meet the riders at the top of the mountain and we’d take over from there. We zipped up the climb, passing all of the favorites – Marko Baloh, Tinker Juarez, Kenny Souza, Robic, you name it. Our riders kept making up the 20 minute deficit, absolutely flying up the climb, so that there was no one left by the top! Not only were we out in front of the race, but we were already pretty far up on the second place team. However, the first team didn’t leave anyone for us to catch, which was somewhat disappointing to those who had hoped to pass some of these big names of cycling.
The RAAMCorporate Challenge took teams 24 hours across the desert to Flagstaf AZ.
Now, a note about the infamous RAAM penalties. The RAAM is really all aboutsafety. Sure, it is a race for the top few riders, but when you get right down to it, it’s an organized way for cyclists of questionable sanity to ride their bikes across the country as fast as they possibly can. So, there are a slew of rules about lighting, vehicles, pulling off the road, following distance, highway travel, etc. Each penalty is bigger than the one before: 15 minutes for the first, then 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes until they kick you out after six or more. Unfortunately, we received our first penalty on this climb, as the vehicle that was making the rider swap did not manage to find a place to pull completely off the road. Add 15 minutes onto our finishing time for this one.
Now, the first pull. We had completed the 13 mile “parade”, so were somewhat warmed up in the morning. An hour or so later, though, we were not exactly ready to crank out a 300+ watt effort off the line. Gary Vasconi was the first one from our second team to take the reins. We made the swap and I was off on my first pull in the Race Across America. Needless to say, it was a brutal shock to the system. The heat was definitely rising into the 80’s by this point with no shade available. Marc Yap also rotated in with our group as we took the pulls solo. While we could have probably gone faster by riding with 2+ riders at a time, the exposure to the elements and the time in the saddle was the single biggest effect on our ability to keep going for the next 23 hours. I had jumped in with Marc Yap for a two-man TT, but after each effort everyone was ready for a break. We cranked up the pace and each pull became less of a shock, but certainly no less easy.
Special thanks to corporate sponsors : Serotta (8 Ti Legends!), Competitive Cyclist, Capo Forma casual wear, Bergamo clothing, Clif Bar, B&L Sports, Uvex helmets, Sigma Lighting systems, Raceplan Coaching, Premier Nutrition, Swami’s Gurus.
Gary and Tyler Tremble did manage to go 2-up for one of the longest mileage pulls of the race: a 10 mile descent into Salton Sea, CA. The road was carved into the side of the mountain with smooth pavement, wide corners and steep grades. The ride down in the car was definitely a white-knuckle affair with F1 driver Dawn Metrisin at the controls. Gary reported his maximum speed at 68.5 mph (not kph – mph!). Needless to say, the rest of us were cursing their names as they tore up this 40+ mph no-brakes-required plummet down into the desert. Absolutely incredible!
By the bottom of the descent, the temperature had climbed up to over 100 degrees. We were now definitely in the desert proper. Several of us parked ourselves in the RV to cool off for a while as the time trialist squad of Mark Huffman, Kam Zardouzian and Josh Zlotlow took off on this hot, flat tarmac. We gathered up additional food, drink and equipment and hopped into the car to zip ahead to our next session of pulling through the desert. We passed the TT team as they were absolutely tearing along the road at 30+ mph, battling the heat and wind.
Across the desert, the team expected Wile E. Coyote to appear.
The road pitched upward and it was onto desert section number two, this time winding through canyons with melting pavement – we expected Wily E. Coyote to have a booby trap waiting for us at any moment in these desert canyons. Each breath dried out your mouth, throat and lungs and seared your vocal chords with the heat, now over 105 degrees. Gary, Albert and Marc performed our transitions with no rider going any more than 5 minutes in the open-air desert furnace of southeastern California. Each break in the car had us all reaching for any available liquid and the occasional energy bar as we pointed all of the air conditioning vents our way. Sure enough, as we pulled off the road to do another rider transition, we got dinged with penalty number two for not pulling completely off the road. It looked like we were pretty far off the road, but the melted pavement, gravel shoulder, and gray area in between were just a melted slag heap. A judgment call that didn’t work in our favor and now we were up to 15 + 30 minutes of penalties. We knew we were ahead of the next team behind us, but were we an entire 45 minutes ahead? The penalties really made it hard to figure out exactly where we stood and we knew we had to keep the pace high to stay in the game.
The next stretch was a tough one, since we were highly aware of our need to pull completely off the road and there were very few openings in the desert brush and soft, off-camber shoulders. We shot for 5 minute pulls, but these ended up being either 3 minutes or 7 minutes as the leapfrog car tried to find a place to pull in to perform the rider transition. Albert mentioned that the pulls were so short that there was no need to take a bottle. I was a little worried of getting stuck out there, so managed to bring along a half bottle of water just in case. We got the routine down after a short while and kept it close to 5 minutes.
Soon we approached the next challenge: I-10. That’s right, the course takes you onto the interstate. There simply aren’t enough (passable) roads in this neck of the woods, so the RAAM route brings you onto the highway. This is why the follow vehicle is so key with its gigantic flags, flashing yellow lights and large, bright-yellow signage. However, you’re still on the highway with its rumble strips, tandem tractor trailers (and their windy wake), and more blown truck tires than you’ve ever seen. The highway is obviously a dangerous place to handle a rider transition, so riders go the entire distance to the next exit ramp, do the rider exchange, and then get on the highway via on-ramps.
I had what would likely be the final pull on the regular desert road before I-10. The next rider would take the first 4-5 mile pull on the highway, hit the exit ramp, and another team would take over as the highway time trial team. Unfortunately, the leapfrog vehicle didn’t quite make it up to the highway entrance in time and was not ready with the next rider. At the end of my five minute effort, I was completely spent and ready for a break. No one was ready to ride, though, so I hopped on the interstate and kept going all the way to the first exit. I tried to keep my speed up as the heat blazed down from the sun above and the pavement below. It was hard to maintain a straight line and avoid all of the truck tires and car parts strewn in the shoulder. After what seemed like an eternity, I pulled up the exit ramp to a cheering team and fresh rider transition. The RV was a welcome sight and I climbed in for a period of rest so that I would be ready for some serious night riding.
In the meantime, the TT team was flying along the lengthy stretch of interstate. Both Josh and Kam were faced with long distance legs between exits and were punished by the heat, distance, and truck tire avoidance. After a lengthy ride in the back of the RV next to a snoring teammate who shall remain nameless, we arrived at the next time station towards the end of the travel on I-10. I am not sure what else happened along this stretch, trusting in my team to haul ass while I was napping. Awakening to several riders coming in and needing relief, I drove one of the leapfrog vehicles ahead to the next time station about 60 miles away. This route took us about as far in the middle of nowhere as you could be. Why people choose to live out here was beyond anyone on the team.
We could understand getting away from it all, but this was so far away from it all it must be hard to regularly find the basics. Riding our bikes from San Diego through here is a perfectly normal endeavor, of course. One at the next time station, I reclined the seat and grabbed some more shuteye to face certain efforts in the middle of the night.
Sure enough, the crew arrived and I was told to get ready for action. Scurrying around the RV and support vehicles, we managed to find all of the equipment that would get us through the night (except warm clothing, which would be strategically missing later on). By this point I had a huge headache and was a little groggy from the quick sleep/wake cycles. A couple of cups of Mike’s crude-oil coffee got things going and the headache faded as I strapped the lighting system to my Serotta.
I hopped in a shuttle car with Josh piloted by John Welch and we cruised on up to meet the team ahead. We caught the other team as they were pulled over, stopped, with one of the RAAM officials (justifiably) reading the group the riot act. From what I could gather, one of the riders did the exchange but continued ahead without the follow car. It being about midnight, this was a big
nighttime no-no. Thus, we graciously earned our third time penalty in the amount of a painful 45 minutes and got the message that riding at night without the protection of the follow vehicle is dangerous. We zipped ahead to the turn-off from the road that the current group was eating up and readied ourselves for the exchange of riders.
It was now sometime around 10:30PM? Now it was Josh, Tyler and Mark riding with Kam as our vehicle pilot. Somehow Dawn and Steve kept themselves alert in the follow vehicle, as they had for many, many hours. Fueled by a bunch of Clif Bar products and caffeine, we were all flying along the desert in the company of hundreds of rabbits and the occasional coyote. Not to mention the gigantic full moon that had stationed itself low in the sky. After what seemed like an endless number of pulls, we came upon the next time station in Congress, AZ. I was taking a turn at the time and someone motioned for me to pull into the station. Seeing that the next rider was far from ready, I uttered some profanity and kept on rolling (the crew just needs to call in that you’re passing a time station). I kept up a solid pace until the next climbing crew took over the reins and began the brutal miles-long climb before Prescott, AZ.
The climbing team of Albert, Gary, and Zap (Marc Yap’s newly-assigned moniker) flew up the climb with its many switchbacks. We drove the climb and wondered at the incredible elevation gain until we finally hit the “Elevation 6100” sign near the top. There ended up being three false summits to the climb, and these took their toll on the climbing team that thought they were almost to their goal. To punish them even further, they were expecting a replacement team at the bottom of the Prescott descent when in fact we were waiting for them at the next time station, a tricky-to-navigate 5 miles away (hey, we had to get all of our cold-weather riding gear set up). The rumor spread at this point that while we were clearly in the lead over the second team, we might be able to beat the course record set last year by the star-studded Team Clif Bar.
From the latest time station, Kam, Marc Yap and I took over with Tyler now as driver. The temperature went from high 50’s to the high 30’s and back every quarter mile or so. Truly bizarre – it was like we were cycling through the desert equivalent of swimming at the town beach. Most of us put on our cushy long-sleeve (pink) team jersey and were fine through most of the temperature swings. The road was constantly rolling up and down with a number of stair step climbs. After each rider swap, I couldn’t wait for my next turn. Mike knows how to brew some coffee! Plus we were downing energy gels and electrolyte drink between each turn. We kept ticking off the miles and searching for places to safely pull completely off the road and not get the car stuck. Kam was absolutely flying on these sections, too, as the smooth pavement and gradual up and down grades would beckon even the most reluctant time trialist. Zap took pull after pull, but he would fall asleep between turns and began muttering in a foreign language, we decided it must have been Portuguese. After this new pattern of behavior developed, we let him skip a couple of turns.
After several hours of cruising through the night, the sun finally started to peek over the hills in the distance. It was instantly 20 degrees warmer now as we headed back towards the highway (I-40). Zap has checked into the hotel located in the back seat of our vehicle while Kam and I plod away in a somewhat delirious state towards the highway. The next group of riders awaits us there, but Kam takes things onto I-40 anyway. The final few stretches take the route up and over the Arizona Continental Divide somewhere over 7,000 feet of elevation. The stretches are pretty long here, all slightly uphill, and a headwind is picking up. Tyler takes a particularly nasty stretch complete with long rollers and mile after mile of grinding along the highway. Albert also signs himself onto a nasty long stretch before he can come off the highway at the next
rest stop. The final 7+ mile leg on I-40 saw some nasty fireworks last year when the team had to go out on a rescue mission for a bonked rider. Everyone on the team wanted to dodge the bullet since most everyone was shot. Albert was willing to take the stretch, but had just pulled one of the toughest stretches of the race. I felt surprisingly fresh (???) and told him “Put me in coach!”
Never being particularly gifted at the time trial discipline, I just wanted to ride this section as fast as I could knowing that it was a long 7 mile slog uphill. Perhaps because the end was near, or perhaps because I didn’t want to disappoint the team, I absolutely attacked this stretch. My teeth were gritted, gnashing, as the effort of cranking 30 mph uphill tore at every pedal stroke. After just a few meters, the effort melted away. It was strange, really. I didn’t seem to feel the pain or the effort. Nothing could slow me down as I kept searching for a stiffer gear, one after the other. Never before have I experienced such a complete sense of being able to go as fast as I wanted. The mile markers came almost too quickly as I sped towards exit 191, that final exit before we would ride together to finish as a team over the last four miles. Heading up the final pitch of the highway, I kept cranking the pedals over with absolutely no pain in my legs. And then came the sign: “ARIZONA DIVIDE – ELEVATION 7,335 FEET.” With my fist pumped in the air, it was a flat spinning-out-the-53-12 burn down to the exit from the highway.
All of the team cars and the RV passed me, honking the entire way by. Then I realized that the ease of the riding that last stretch had nothing to do with me or my fitness. It had everything to do with riding together with a team of incredible individuals who came together to support one person in particular; all of the people in each of our lives touched by cancer; and millions of others
who are racing through their own battles with cancer every day. It was the most powerful fuel you could ever put to the pedals.
I successfully negotiated the exit and met up with the other 7 riders as we took off in pursuit of the final four miles together. Our follow vehicle shouted out the turns from behind and we cruised into the finish line shoulder to shoulder. It was clearly the longest 24 hours in our cycling history and we had come together to finish first, over two hours ahead of the next placed team and setting a new course record by over 15 minutes.
It only took an amazing effort to produce an amazing result.. simple really.
We immediately stacked up the eight custom painted Serottas and took a deep breath before exploding in celebration of winning the 24-hour Corporate Challenge. Everyone joined in – our stellar support crew of Mike, Steve, Victor, John and Dawn. The eight riders of Albert, Kam, Gary, Josh, Tyler, Marc, Mark, and Mark. We all were overcome by the prospect that it was all over with. A number of interviews and photos later, we all de-chamois’d and started relaxing in the shade of the RV. Gary and I made the requisite refreshing BEvERage run almost immediately (although we were still in our pink kits, much to the amusement of the staff at the Quicky Mart).
The team spent the better part of four hours in the shade of the RV, unpacking the (completely trashed) vehicles, sipping recovery drinks and relaxing. And then began the nonstop roll of hanging out, swapping stories and heckling everyone else on the team. The Swami’s team rolled in for second place and most of them came over to share their stories from the road. Unfortunately, they were not exempt from the heckling and everyone had some serious belly aches from all of the laughing. After what seemed like enough time hanging out in a mostly deserted parking lot, we packed up and headed for the hotel.
Virtually everyone agreed that RAAM is a crucible. You put everyone in and turn up the heat. The stress, physical exertion, sheer heat of the desert and long hours of night bring out the best and the worst in everyone. Add on top of that incredible logistical challenges, unknown roads that lay ahead, plenty of pain and suffering, and fear that you may not reach the next goal fast enough. What better way to judge someone’s character?
In this way, RAAM is like a 24-hour window into the life of someone battling cancer. I’ve been close to so many battles, and every 24-hour day brings new challenges that are no less of a feat to overcome than RAAM (which has a distinct end). So many treatments, so much left unknown, and miraculous happenings at every step of the way. Everyone has (or will have) someone close to them who will battle breast cancer (or so many other types of cancer).
You can help support the fight to end breast cancer by clicking these links and reading Erika’s story, making a donation, or purchasing the team kit.
• ERIKA: http://www.zippis.com
• DONATE: http://www.active.com/donate/beat_cancer
• CLOTHING: http://www.raceplan.com/beatcancer/docs/kit.html
• BREAST CANCER FUND: http://www.breastcancerfund.org
You may find out more details on the team, the mission, and how to make a donation and purchase the snazzy, custom pink cycling clothing at BeatCancer.Raceplan.com.
1. Albert Barajas
2. Gary Vasconi
3. Joshua Zlotlow
4. Kam Zardouzian
5. Marc Yap
6. Mark Huffman
7. Tyler Tremble
8. Mark Abramson
1. Dawn Metresin
2. John Welch
3. Steve Hom
4. Mike Jennings
6. Mark Huffman
7. Tyler Tremble
8. Mark Abramson
1. Serotta (8 Ti Legends!)
2. Competitive Cyclist
3. Capo Forma casual wear
4. Bergamo clothing
5. Clif Bar
6. B&L Sports
7. Uvex helmets
8. Sigma Lighting systems
9. Raceplan Coaching
10. Premier Nutrition
11. Swami’s Gurus of