Race Across America, the world’s most challenging bicycle race, began for our Above + Beyond Cancer team on Saturday morning, June 16th on the pier in Oceanside, California. The start of the race is a combination of celebration, anticipation, fellowship, and, of course, competition. Our team also has a higher purpose. We’re comprised of 8 cancer survivors and caregivers who have come together for this grueling endurance bicycle race to demonstrate that cancer does not have to place limits on one’s aspirations. We also hope that our participation in this race will inspire and motivate people from coast-to-coast to join us in our real mission – helping to create a world with less cancer.
The Race Across America (RAAM) is in its 31st year. The bicycle race will continue non-stop, 24/7, for 3000 miles. The finish line is in Annapolis, MD. We hope to complete the race in less than one week as we pedal through 12 states, across deserts, up mountains, and over plains. We will have to do it fast enough to meet the speed requirements of the race. If we don’t maintain a fast enough pace, we will be sent home for being too slow. We understand the requirements. This is bicycle race that we’ve entered, not a cancer survivor bicycle ride.
Our team is amazing. We have 5 cancer survivors, age 29 to 66 and 3 cancer caregivers. Our team is comprised of 6 men and 2 women. We have survivors of tonsil cancer, prostate cancer, leukemia and two breast cancer survivors. It’s a group of individuals that have never competed in a bicycle race of any kind, let alone the most demanding bicycle race on the planet. They are on this journey not in spite of their cancer. They are on this journey because of their cancer and the courage and confidence that they gained during that journey. Drennan, Sarah, Gail, Brandon and Bobby are truly the heart and soul of this team. Each of their stories will unfold as the race progresses.
On Saturday, the race began under cloudless skies at the pier overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There are over 350 cyclists from 36 countries competing in RAAM this year. We’re one of 18 eight-person teams in the race. Although there are eight cyclists on the team, our entire team is also composed of a 12-person support crew that will ensure that the cyclists are safe on this cross-country race. They will feed us, water us, and drive the RV and support vans that provide us safety and shelter as we race to the finish line. They are as important as the cyclists. Our crew includes 2 cancer survivors, Corey and Justin, and many individuals whose lives have been touched by cancer in very personal ways. They have dedicated this week to serving on the team, not because they’re bicycle-racing aficionados, but because they are committed to our mission.
It’s hard to believe that 3 days have passed since our race began. During those 3 days we have crossed the coastal mountains of California, traversed the deserts of southern California and Arizona through 110-degree heat, scaled the Rocky Mountains and descended down onto the eastern Colorado plains. We are currently pedaling across Kansas where our team is facing very hot and windy conditions. Yesterday morning as the sun rose in the sky, we were enjoying a tail wind from the west that helped push us from Colorado onto the Kansas plains. The weather, like life, is a balance of ease and challenge. The wind picked up intensity and switched directions. For the rest of the day we were bucking a 30 mph cross wind in 105 degree heat. No one said that life was going to be easy. If bicycle riding were always a tailwind sport, there would be a lot more people in this race. We accept the weather, the conditions, the muscle cramps, the fatigue, the sunburn, and the discomfort with the same understanding that we accept all the challenges that life deals us. We know that adversity will bring us incredible growth and we know that we can deal with anything that life and this race put on our plate. We have a wisdom and purpose that sustain us during difficult times.
Even as we try to raise awareness and “recruit” advocates to join us in our fight against cancer, cancer continues to fight back. This year, over 600,000 Americans will die of the disease. As I check my text messages from my nurse, who remains back at the office helping my partners take care of my patients, I read about the deaths of two of my longtime patients today. Both are lovely, intelligent, compassionate woman who have so much to offer the world. In two separate messages I learn that they have died and that the world, and all of us, will be deprived of all the wonderful things that a longer life would have given us. Even as we Race Across America to bring attention to our mission, cancer does not pause to participate in our efforts. It’s not a surprise to me or to anyone on this team. That’s the reason we do what we’re doing. These events strengthen our resolve. No matter how difficult our 24/7 days of pedaling a bicycle are, they are nothing compared to the pain and suffering of our patients and the anguish of their families when another needless death occurs.
I mark the passing of each of patient by decorating a water bottle in her honor. Our team has over 1000 water bottles on the race, each one paying tribute to someone whose life has been affected by cancer. Many of them are decorated in memory of someone who has lost his or her life to cancer. Others are in honor of cancer survivors who continue their cancer journey. The water bottles are providing our team with sustenance and with inspiration as we use them on our Race Across America. Two new water bottles have now been added to our sacred reserve. I will personally carry these two bottles today and they will inspire me to do more than I would otherwise demand of myself. Even in death, these women and all of the individuals that are displayed on our bottles, are bound with us on our mission to make the world better for future generations.
Today our racers continue across Kansas. We’ve divided the 8-person team into two groups of 4. Yesterday, one of the 4-member groups cycled in rotation for 19 straight hours. The other group of 4 got some much needed rest and came onto the race coarse at 4 am today to take over. The first group found much needed sleep in a motel in Wichita. It’s 1:36 pm on Wednesday and we are currently back in the RV headed out to find the group on-duty now and take over the non-stop endeavor. Last night we overtook one of the teams that were in front of us. We start today in 13th place and look forward to improving our time and standing.
We have developed a rhythm to our hectic life on the road. We’ve also developed a purpose and bond. No matter how we finish on the standing board at the conclusion of the race in Annapolis, MD, we will have changed lives. No one knows what he can truly accomplish in life. It’s only by reaching above and beyond our comfort zone that we have any sense of what we are truly capable of. In the end, life is potentially short. If diamonds were as plentiful as grains of sand, they would be worthless. If we lived forever, wasting a day of our lives would be trivial. But be don’t have endless days on earth and it’s this knowledge that provides context for what we do. Ultimately, living each day with passion, compassion, and commitment to something bigger than one’s self is an appropriate tribute to those who have lost their lives to cancer. We’re honored to be racing for those who are no longer here to race for themselves.
As we get closer to our riders, I begin to get ready for my upcoming 12 hour “shift”. I luxuriate in the comfort of a clean pair of cycling shorts, I apply sunscreen, and I clean my sunglasses and find my helmet. Then, I reach into our box of red and white water bottles and choose two new ones to use on my first shift on the bicycle today. The names and faces on the bottles will help propel me eastward. I find comfort in their gentle presence.