In the last few issues of The Perfect Form, we have had the privilege of covering iconic races like the Boston Marathon and the Comrades Marathon. We walked in the shoes of athletes who pride themselves on making sacrifices and making the utmost commitment to these races. We heard life-changing stories of everyday people emerging on the other side of these events as extraordinary individuals. We were hungry and curious to know more. What was it that pushed human beings to find such strength in their spirit? Surely it was more than training? A lot of athletes train, but not everyone makes it to the starting line. What motivates these athletes – who are often not professionals – to defy expectations, demolish boundaries, and emerge triumphant?
Some races have cemented their place in the wider public consciousness as emblems of transformative personal journeys. Such races are not just tributes to the amazing engineering of the human body – they are also witnesses to the incredible resilience of the human spirit. Their histories are not just records of superhuman athletic feats, but testimonies of thousands of myriad human stories – stories of victory, stories of failure, stories of resurrection, and stories of redemption. One such race is the Race Across America (RAAM) – where the human body and soul are forged together to create an alchemy of human triumph.
The RAAM is a 3,000 mile race that runs from coast-to-coast, from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland. The 2015 edition marked the 34th edition of the race, which makes it one of America’s most enduring cycling events. Though they are distinctly different races, RAAM is often compared to the Tour De Force in terms of the endurance challenge that it presents to cyclists. What sets RAAM apart from the Tour De Force is that it is a non-stop race from the start to the finish, unlike the latter which is completed in stages. This means that RAAM racers essentially need to be on the move non-stop, as every extra minute of sleep, and every pit-stop adds to their total finish time.
Often referred to as the ‘World’s toughest endurance bicycle race’, RAAM attracts an international field of cyclists from over 35 countries – in teams of 2,4, and 8 person-teams, as well as solo racers. Of these, the solo racers must qualify for RAAM by competing in one of 30 qualifying events that are held across the world – a feat in itself, as these qualifying races are gruelling in their own regard – such as the Tour of the Dragon bike race in Bhutan, a death-defying 268K high altitude mountain race, and the Deccan Cliffhanger – an annual 643K race from Pune to Goa.
Of these 30 qualifying events, the Race Across the West (RAW) is considered one of the toughest. It follows the same route as the RAAM on the West Coast, for 860 miles across the Coast Range, Imperial Dunes, Monument Valley and finish in the San Juan Range of SW Colorado. The RAW is one of the most sought after qualifying events for solo racers, as it is the perfect testing ground to gauge one’s performance and training for RAAM.
The RAAM isn’t just a platform for athletic excellence – it is one of the most successful fundraising athletic events in the world. Every year, the race enables a diverse group of charities to raise over $ 2.5million through associations with various athletes.
Unbelievably, it all started with 4 individual racers in 1982 as the great American Bike Race. John Marino, John Howard, Michael Shermer, and Lon Haldeman set out to race from Santa Monica, California to the Empire State Building in New York, where Haldeman emerged as the winner. This 4-person unofficial race captured the public’s imagination in an unprecedented way.
The public interest in the race prompted subsequent editions in the coming years, as the race was re-christened as the ‘Race Across America’ and was televised on ABC. Soon, the nature of the course and time challenge was attracting some of the best global endurance cyclists. The growing calibre of competitors every year, the heroic narrative of cyclists battling the elements for 3000 miles, and its luminous fundraising record has elevated RAAM to the enduring – not just endurance – status that it enjoys today in the world.
The RAAM ‘Hall of Fame’ includes some of the best cyclists that the world has ever seen – they are multiple winners who have sky-high benchmarks, in terms of RAAM performance and strategy. RAAM icons include solo racers like Rob Kish, regarded by some as the most celebrated ultracyclist in the world. Kish’s mindboggling RAAM record includes 17 successful finishes, without a single DNF and 3 solo wins. Kish set the RAAM record by finishing in 8 days and 3 hours, which still stands – a tough saddle to fill.
Rob Kish is probably one of the best athletes ever – that the world will never know. Though he was featured on the BBC and the Discovery Channel, he is relatively obscure outside of the RAAM community. He shies away from autographs and interviews, preferring to let his saddle do the talking, and never competes in any other race except the RAAM.
The talk of RAAM icons would of course, be incomplete without Maria Parker, not just one of the most successful competitors in the race’s history, but also one of the biggest champions of the race’s fundraising platform. In October 2012, Parker founded the ‘3000 Miles to a Cure’ foundation for brain cancer research, after her sister was diagnosed with Stage VI brain cancer. With the goal of raising $1 million, Parker set out to compete in the RAAM in 2013. Just 612 miles into the 3000 mile course, Parker’s follow vehicle was rear-ended by a driver in Arizona. Parker’s son and crew members suffered minor injuries, and her follow vehicle was completely destroyed. It looked like an impossible feat to keep competing in such circumstances, and Parker was forced to withdraw from the race. However, merely 24 hours after she withdrew, Parker was inspired to beat the odds and finish the 3000 mile mark. She knew she would be disqualified for missing the time cut-off and withdrawing, but Parker was determined to finish anyway.
To her surprise, RAAM officials waived the time cut-off, which meant that Parker was qualified to race as an official rider. Even after losing 24 hours, Parker soared to the front of the pack – a performance that is still referred to as one of the greatest in RAAM history – to win the women’s field with a time of 11 days, 20 hours, and 54 minutes.
India’s romance with RAAM
In the past decade, India has seen a massive spur in interest and participation of athletes in domestic and international endurance events. This is owing to the growing accessibility to information about races, the growing availability of world-class sports nutrition products and gear in India, and exposure to international endurance circuits. What also seems to be a factor is the burgeoning confidence that Indian athletes – even those competing on a recreational level – are developing in terms of training. India now also hosts a bouquet of home-grown ultra-cycling races such as the Deccan Cliffhanger and several authorized 200K, 400K and 600K brevets. Randonneuring has officially arrived in India.
It is no wonder that the RAAM has captured the attention of exceptional Indian cyclists. These athletes have dedicated years to training for RAAM, despite the lack of sponsorship and the high expenses of participating in the RAAM. Their resilience and determination is the stuff of legend. Here’s a look at some of the competitors from India who have made their presence felt at RAAM.
1. Samim Rizvi
Rizvi was the first Indian and only the third Asian to qualify for RAAM. His training odyssey was in the making since 2008, when Rizvi began training with the race in mind. His first attempt in 2010 had to be cut short when Rizvi had to quit due to a bout of pneumonia.
In his 2011 attempt, he became the first Indian to finish the entire RAAM route in 12 days and 42 minutes, even though he went over the time limit by 42 minutes due to multiple technical failures and the lack of a follow RV. An impressive feat, despite the time penalty.
2. Sumit Patil
Sumit became the third Indian to qualify for the Race Across America on 24th March 2013. He qualified for RAAM 2013 by successfully completing the Ultra BOB, a 601 km Ultra Marathon Cycling Association World Championship event in 30 hours 52 minutes. Oh, and his bike is called ‘Sara’.
3. Divya Tate
Divya’s running career spans 24 years, in which she has logged thousands of miles cycling and randonneuring. She has successfully finished self-supported brevets (200, 300, 400 and 600K rides) since 2010. Since 2011, Divya is also India’s official national representative to the Audax Club Parisien (ACP) France, the body which authorizes and recognizes brevets across the world. Divya has been crewing for RAAM teams since 2012, and was a RAAM official in 2014 as a road marshal.
RAAM 2012 – First RAAM crewing experience with an Indian rider who DNFed at Alamosa. RAAM 2013 – Crewed for 4 person US team Team ‘Break The Cycle’ who finished in 7 and a half days. RAW 2014 – Crewed for Dave Preston. RAAM 2014 – Officiated for RAAM as a road marshal for entire route, after finishing crew duties at Durango.
India’s triumph at RAAM 2015
Even with several solo attempts by Indians at RAAM, success had still eluded an Indian team at the iconic race. That is, until the Mahajan brothers emerged on the scene. On the 29th of May 2015, the 2-person team of Dr. Hitendra Mahajan and Dr. Mahendra Mahajan made Indian history with their scorching RAAM finish. The doctor duo from Nashik, Maharashtra rode into Annapolis, Maryland, with 3004 miles behind them, in a blaze of the tricolour emblazoned on their jerseys.
There was more to this victory than 2 lone riders, of course. This success belonged to the entire team, which proudly called themselves ‘Team India: Vision for Tribals’, comprising of the 12 member support crew for the Mahajans.
Support crews are the heart of every RAAM story. The non-stop nature of the race elevates the RAAM to the ultra-marathon category, where there are no designated points for sleep and food. For cyclists looking to win the race, sleep can even become optional, if they target to finish within day 8 or 9 of the race. Given the extreme nature of the event, solo racers and teams alike are dependent on their support crews which accompany them throughout the entire course. These support crews follow riders, often in specially customized vehicles which are fully equipped to carry supplies for the entire race duration, and offer a comfortable and safe space for racers to sleep and rest.
Support crews are absolutely essential to the racer’s performance, as they are responsible for the navigation, logistics, and planning the race strategy. Practicalities of the race aside, support crews are also tasked with the responsibility of keeping racers motivated and mentally strong. Racers are often sleep deprived, and combating challenging weather conditions ranging from the Arizona desert, to chilly weather, and thunderstorms. Temperatures can vary from 5 degrees Celsius to 43 degrees Celsius in a span of two days. Major portions of the race are through freeways, which can mean riding in open traffic throughout the night, in conditions where riders have had little sleep. Crews are in constant communication with the racers, spurring them on, closely monitoring their mental and physiological state, and keeping them safe.
RAAM crews are so much more than navigators or drivers. They form the psychological support net for the riders, to keep them positive and focused even when the race cranks up the heat (or the rain) on the riders. Crews are more like brotherhoods and sisterhoods – a band of individuals whom the riders trust with their very lives.
The ‘Team India: Vision for Tribals’ crew members
Dr. Suneel Vartak- Crew chief
Dr. Rajendra Nehete
Dr. Ramakant Patil
Dr. Milind Pimprikar
Dr. Sham Chaudhari
Dr. Sachin Gujar from USA
Dr. Sandeep Shewale and Dr. Amol Tambe
Coach Miten Thakker
Pankaj Marlesha and Kishor Kale – cycle technical experts
RAAM Budget:The total expenditure for the expedition was approximately INR 50 lakhs for 2 riders and 12 crew members.
The expenses involved were:
- Registration fee for the race ( $6000 = 3.75 lac)
- Four high end carbon bikes/bicycles (2 each for both riders) along with
- Carbon wheels – ( $18000 = 14 lac) .
- Hiring 3 support vehicles in USA, two SUVs and one RV ( Recliner Vehicle) for 13 days.
- Return airfare to USA for 12 crew members+ 2 riders
- 15 days stay in US for the entire team
- Fuel charges for 3 vehicles, travelling 5000 km.
- Stay/Lodging and food for entire team for 15 days.
Unived Sports spoke exclusively with Dr. Suneel Vartak, the crew chief of ‘Team India: Vision for Tribals’, who spearheaded the crew support for the Mahajans’ extraordinary expedition.
The crew members have all known each other for the past 28 years. Apart from sharing a passion for endurance sport, many of the crew members went to medical school together. “Going through medical school certainly brings you close!” exclaims Dr. Vartak, a dermatologist by day. Surprisingly for a crew member of an endurance cycling expedition, Dr. Vartak doesn’t do more than 25K of cycling himself. He is primarily a climber, going all the way back to 1985, having completed and headed several successful Himalayan mountaineering expeditions. “In fact, most of our crew comprised of non-cyclists. People found this remarkable, as most RAAM crew members are accomplished cyclists themselves. We even got a special mention from the RAAM officials,” he says.
Though teams don’t have to qualify for RAAM, the Mahajan brothers qualified individually in 2014, by successfully completing the Deccan Cliffhanger – an annual 643K race from Pune to Goa. The duo has also undertaken expeditions like randonneuring from the Gateway of India to Mahabaleshwar, and the 1000K journey from India Gate, Delhi to the Wagah border in 2014.
RAAM is notorious for its unpredictable weather conditions. A solo racer or team battling strong winds, chilly conditions and thunderstorms can quickly bring an expedition to a halt. So, how much of an obstacle was the weather? “We had anticipated tough weather conditions for sure, and we were mentally prepared for them. However, we didn’t expect to face this very early into the race. When they were cycling through Arizona, the temperature reached a maximum of 48 degrees Celsius. Mahendra, unfortunately, got really dehydrated and it got to the point where he had to be brought to the vehicle. Hitendra had to keep riding, of course. He rode for 6 hours on his own on Day 1. Mahendra’s dehydration got so bad that it took him 20 hours to fully recover. Then on Day 6, we ran into massive thunderstorms. The rain was lashing down on them, the temperature dropped, and the chill was made worse by the cross-wind. It’s a sober reminder that no matter how much planning you do, you can never tell which way the wind is going to blow with the RAAM – quite literally,” recalls Dr. Vartak. He says that welcome respite came on Day 2, when they got to a town called Congress, Arizona, where cooling ‘Bathtubs’ were provided to the cyclists.
Even with the adverse weather conditions, the fact that the Mahajans finished in 8 days 14 hours and 55 minute, speaks volumes about their distance training for the race. Dr. Vartak credits this to their simulation rides along with the entire crew to replicate long race durations. The team cycled for 1900K over a course of 72 hours, and these simulation rides were done 3 times to condition the cyclists and the crew for what was in store for them.
Coordinating amongst a crew of 12 was a task in itself. To delegate responsibilities efficiently, the crew was divided into 3 teams of 4 members each. Each of these 3 teams comprised of a navigator, a driver and a caretaker. Having 3 teams ensured that crew members could rotate shifts, rest and catch up on sleep. One crew would ride 3 hours ahead of the team, to freshen up and then meet the riders on time. All this was achieved through seamless and constant communication. “Sure, we had a few squabbles along the way. That is inevitable when you are on the road in a confined space for long hours and sleep deprived. However, on the whole, the crew members worked exceptionally well with each other.”
Given the duration of the race, it was essential to have support vehicles that were fully equipped to provide some degree of comfort and space. The team had 3 support vehicles, which were painstakingly prepared over the course of 5-6 days. Dr. Vartak says that they used pictures of other RAAM support vehicles as reference. These vehicles were equipped for cooking, sleeping and carrying the enormous supplies used during the race.
Speaking of cooking, Dr. Vartak says that as the race progressed further, it got harder to maintain any appetite for food. The riders were quickly losing their taste for food, but it was crucial to ensure that they consumed enough calories. Meghana Surve, senior dietician based in Mumbai, created a meticulous nutrition plan to keep them mentally and physically on track. A typical meal was a good combination of carbs and protein for recovery, such as bread with chicken salad or an omelette. “They also consumed specialized pre, during and post products to make sure that their physiological demands were met during each stage of their ride, and they were recovered and ready to go after just a few hours of sleep. Plain water, coconut water, sports drinks and caffeinated sports drinks were their primary means of hydration.”
On the 25th of May, the team ran into a potentially dangerous obstacle. Their 3rd support vehicle got hit by a truck on a highway in Ohio. Thankfully, no one was injured, and the team immediately contacted the company which they had rented the vehicle from. Just a couple of hours later, the company sent them a new recovery vehicle, which helped them get back on track.
Like any endurance race of significance, Dr. Vartak says that the duo’s achievement was won in the mind first, and then by their bodies. There would be times when it got really tough for them to keep going. Several RAAM racers have also reported hallucinations on the route because of sleep deprivation. “We were monitoring them very closely to watch out signs of physical and mental distress,” says Dr. Vartak. “We were constantly communicating with them through wireless comm, so we could discuss the route and the strategy ahead. It helped them focus on the objective. It wasn’t all serious talk, though. These riders are tired beyond imagination – it is important in such a state to infuse some lightness and banter. It helps remind them that they are not alone. We would sing songs and ghazals, sometimes even talk to them pretending to be Indian radio DJs!”
‘Team India: Vision for Tribals’ reached the finish line at 6.10 am local time, on the 29th of May 2015, becoming the first Indian team to finish RAAM, by winning their category (2-person male Under 50). Dr. Vartak recalls this spectacular moment, “We were so happy to make it there without any time penalties. We sang the National Anthem, and other teams paid their respects by standing for it. It was really emotional. It was the culmination of countless hours of planning and training.”
It wasn’t a happy ending just for the team and crew, though. Their RAAM finish has now illuminated many lives. The ‘Kalpataru Foundation’ which the team was associated with had pledged 5 cataract surgeries and 1 corneal transplant for needy tribals, for every 100K that the team completed in RAAM. At the time of speaking with Dr. Vartak, 392 cataract surgeries and 72 corneal transplants had already been performed by a team of ophthalmologists from the Kalpataru Foundation – a direct result of the Mahajan duo’s success at RAAM.
So, what does the team and the crew have in store for the future? “At the moment, we are still soaking up this success. Everyone is trying to get back to their regular practice, along with juggling requests for public appearances and talks. We are happy that this seems to have inspired more people to take up the sport. Apparently, the sale of cycles in Nashik has gone up since the team’s RAAM finish!” says Dr. Vartak.
“Despite the challenges, this race is such a transformative and beautiful process. You get to experience such a diversity of nature, landscape and humanity in the span of a few days on the road in America. I think we have all come back feeling more inspired than ever. It’s also great to see all the good that the race has brought into other people’s lives. Let’s see where this inspiration now takes us,” signs off Dr. Vartak.