Inside Look at the Body’s Response to the Race Across America

Last week I had the unique opportunity to compete in the Race Across America as part of a 2-person team with my friend Jerry Schemmel. For those not familiar with this event, it’s a 3,000 mile bike race from Oceanside, CA to Annapolis, MD. It includes 170,000 vertical feet of climbing, and the full range of elements, from the desert heat (we hit at least 118 degrees on day 2) to driving rain and wind, seemingly endless hills and mind-numbing headwinds.  In one sense it’s the epitome of “survival of the fittest” but in another it’s simply “survival,” as even the fittest athletes, if they don’t ration their energy, can end up on the ever expanding list of DNFs (Did Not Finish). We were fortunate. Everything came together to allow us to not only finish, but to finish in 1st Place among the 2-person teams, and compete with several 4-person teams along the way.

As a guy who lives his life in the wellness arena, probably the most common question I’ve been asked since crossing the finish line is “how did it feel?” (ie – what did your body do?).  Here’s a brief synopsis of what happened before, during and after the event to this sample size of one racer…

Pre-Race:  I spent about 20 weeks in the training build-up to the event. Most of the previous 18 months had been spent running, so the overall conditioning was reasonably good, but the cycling fitness was almost non-existent.  Over that 20 weeks, I gradually built to between 25-35 hours/week of cycling and strength/core work.  Most of these hours were compacted into very long rides over the weekend in order to adapt to 10, 12 and 14 hour days in the saddle. Also – living in Colorado – 90% of the training was done on an indoor Computrainer in our basement.  This setting got old at times, but it also provided somewhat of a “lab” to test nutrition, intensity and volume in a consistent setting.  An immense focus on aero positioning was implemented via a new training tool called the Aerobar Edge (www.AerobarEdge.com if you’re curious), knowing that an ability to sustain aero as much as possible during RAAM would save us HOURS in our final finish time.

The Wreck: Six weeks prior to the race, I felt physically ready, but was so sick of cycling that I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep the training going over the final stretch.  Then the unthinkable happened – I was thrown from my bike when a goose flew into me while doing TT work.  The result was not pretty:  8 broken bones, including 3 fractures to the pelvis, fractured clavicle, 4 broken ribs and a concussion.  Fortunately (very fortunately), the concussion was not serious and the pelvic fractures were non-displaced. As a result, I was eventually cleared to continue training as long as there was no sharp pain.  While there was a 10 day period when I thought I may be out for good, the timing of the wreck was actually quite fortunate, as it allowed me to be almost 100% healed by race day, and suddenly my head went from thinking “ugggh – I have to do another 12 hour ride to train tomorrow” to “Praise God that I get to ride 12 hours tomorrow!”

The 20 week build (minus the lighter 10 days around the wreck) transformed a runner (or at best, a running triathlete) into somewhat of a cyclist.  In addition to the big volume of training, my FTP (Functional Threshold Power) increased to 4.35 watts/kg. That’s not a big number for a serious cyclist, but it was certainly an encouraging number for me.

The Race:  Jerry and I built our strategy around a strong finish. Rather than trading off riders ever 30-60 minutes 24/7, we extended the pull time to 4+ hours during the night. We gave up some time to other teams early in the week, but we were more rested late in the game (not “rested” obviously, but certainly moreso than the alternative). As a result of this strategy and a consistent fueling/hydrating plan, my energy levels on day 6 and 7 were essentially equal to every day except day one!  No – I’m not kidding.  During the first day (noon start so only a half day of riding), I was obviously rested and tapered and it was by far the strongest day. In fact, I probably burned a match or two unnecessarily late that night when I saw an opposing team’s lights off in the distance and put on the chase for a couple of hours. The next morning I was tired, but after learning that lesson, the energy levels from day 2 through the finish were almost the same. However, that doesn’t mean there weren’t brutal periods…

The Ugly Sections: Every day (after day one) had it’s ugly section.  These were 1-2 hour pulls where the energy was simply absent, where I’d be dragging myself through it, just wanting to get it over with as soon as possible but unable to go any faster (or so I thought – see below). During one of these sections, I turned to my son Joshua (who was doing the navigating for the follow-car) and said something inappropriate like “That was so slow my Grandmother could have ridden it faster on a single speed – and she’s no longer alive!” Yes – it was that brutally ugly at times – and those times came every day.  Sometimes in the morning on the end of a 4-5 hour pull. Other times in the late afternoon or early evening. But they always came. Zero energy and no choice but to take my pull because Jerry wasn’t feeling any better.

The Revelation: On day 3, our communication wires got crossed. But instead of causing a problem, it created a revelation that may turn out to be beneficial for the rest of my days. It was one of those mornings. I was on a 4 1/2 hour pull (coming off Jerry’s similarly long pull) and the last 90 minutes were just plain ugly. I limped my way to the transition point and thought I was going to get about 90 minutes to recover. But because of a snafu in our communication, that 90 minutes ended up being 20 minutes.  I grabbed my bike and somewhat grumpily (sorry folks) took off with more anger than motivation (not directed toward anyone – just at the situation). The emotion built over the initial 5 minutes and over the next 90+ minutes, I probably went as hard as I’d gone since the first day, chewing up miles as my head turned that emotion into wattage. In retrospect, it was a crazy feeling – and a cool revelation.  On each of the next 4 days, a similar event occurred, where the body said “there’s absolutely nothing left” but some emotional spark turned it into 90+ minutes of furious energy release. It surprised me each and every time – and those 4 pulls (which again – came at a time when my body said “NO MORE!”) were probably the 4 most memorable sections of the entire race on a personal level.

The Response: So you know the energy levels were relatively constant from day to day. What else happened to the body?

  • Toe Numbness – On day 3 I noticed that all 10 of my toes were numb. They still are (a week later) but to a lesser extent. Fortunately, this coincided with the time our Team Doc was on board and we agreed that it was peripheral (I have very high arches) and not coming from the spine so we made no adjustments and simply knew it would eventually resolve.
  • Finger Numbness – I spent most of my time in the Aero position, so I didn’t get too much of this. My left thumb and index finger got some numbness the last few days (more time spent upright with weight on hands in the driving rain the last 3 days) but that was minor and will likely resolve in the coming days.
  • Swollen Legs – For a full 4 days after crossing the finish line, both lower legs were filled with edema to the point that you could push on a spot and it would hold the impression for a few minutes (the kids thought this was cool – my bride was a little concerned). And the Doc was a little concerned too, as this could point to several issues, dangerous issues, especially with the history that included the pelvic fractures.  Fortunately, on day 5, it cleared completely and legs were back to “normal” – indicating it was likely due to an electrolyte imbalance from the week-long event. Phew!
  • Body Weight – After the first full day, my weight was down about 4 lbs. Fortunately, one of our brilliant Crew Team members had planned to weigh us, so we caught this issue early and the next day I took in much higher caloric levels. For the rest of the race, weight was relatively consistent.  BUT AFTER THE RACE ENDED (this is a valuable lesson for all of us in wellness), I spent the next week eating anything and everything I felt like eating. Basically I ate like a normal person 🙂 and the results were quite insightful.  Coming off a crazy week of exertion and calorie burning, with my metabolism likely at an all-time high, my lifestyle choices added almost 7 POUNDS to my bodyweight over just a 7 day period. Did you catch that? An active individual with a high metabolism eating whatever he felt like eating for just 7 DAYS gained 7 lbs.  Please note – this wasn’t 7 lbs over a depleted post-race weight. This was 7 lbs over my normal, everyday functional weight.  Note to self – our daily choices matter!
  • Muscle Function – 3 days after the race, I laced up my running shoes to go for a short (10 minute?) casual jog.  Epic failure.  After just 2 minutes, I suffered massive cramping in both quads. Think of one of those calf cramps you get when sleeping and then move the cramping sensation to your quadriceps muscles (front of your thighs).  2 minutes!  Remember – I’m a runner.  Make that I WAS a runner.  But due to the bike wreck, I’d done very little walking and zero running for the past 8 weeks. For that entire period, I was training on the bike – in an aero position. Cycling involves essentially zero eccentric contraction of the muscles. Running involves a lot of eccentric contraction of the muscles. Cycling in aero utilizes the hip muscles in a shortened position. Running extends the hip muscles.  While I haven’t completely worked through the issue yet (got through 10 min on the treadmill this AM, so it’s improving), I’m convinced it’s due to asking the muscles to do something that’s been COMPLETELY foreign to them for the past 2+ months (think of an astronaut returning to gravity – very similar).  This was something I never expected, and while I’d rather skip it altogether – it is pretty fascinating.
  • The Head – Post-event depression is very common after an event like this. As long as my legs come around, I’ll likely be able to avoid that issue thanks to having an Ironman triathlon on the schedule in about 10 weeks. I obviously won’t be fully prepared since that’s not enough time to build up the running to race-readiness, but the cycling base gives me a head start and it’s a nice way to cushion the mental fall after something so expansive.

So there you have it.  The before, during and after of the body’s response to the Race Across America.  Many lessons learned that relate to both personal and employee wellness strategies, and we’ll share them in the weeks and months to come.

Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

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