By Bob Corman — People ask me “why do you do things like this?” Most likely by the time I finish writing this neither you nor I will be any closer to that answer. Except maybe the answer is in the little stories within the story, the things we will take with us long after we forget what our finishing time was or what place we came in. Is this all worth the massive toll on my body that now, a week after finishing, is just starting to subside? The feelings of no energy, the pain everywhere, the night sweats, the feeling upon waking at home that I need to go ride a segment now but I’m too tired – which I think is a mild form of PTSD. You decide. For me, I don’t know if I will do this race again, but I am so glad my friend and teammate Doug Fujii gave me the opportunity to do it once.
The Race Across the West (RAW) is the baby sibling to The Race Across America (RAAM), which is the marquee race for ultra-endurance road cyclists. The two races run concurrently. RAW has solo, two-person, and four-person categories. From the RAW website: “Race Across the West was started in 2008 to offer a race longer than 500 miles and to help bridge the mileage gap to RAAM. It has since evolved into an epic race in its own right…It follows the first 930 miles of the RAAM course, from Oceanside, CA to Durango, CO…RAW leaves the beach in Oceanside, climbs the Coastal Range and the drops into the scorching desert. After crossing the deserts of California and Arizona, racers begin a gradual climb into the mountains surrounding Flagstaff, AZ and eventually into the Rocky Mountains. The race finishes at Fort Lewis College in the cycling mecca of Durango, CO.”
The 2021 Race Across the West timing coincided with a record-setting heat wave in the southwestern United States. The kind of heat most cyclists would never consider riding in. To prepare for this, I had a singular day of heat training – I rode out to Stevens Canyon in the SF Bay Area one day and my little Wahoo Bolt said it was over 100. Then the day before the race we practiced a racer transition where I would meet Doug after his unsupported first 23+ miles of the race. Just climbing the hill at that location, the temperatures were already well over 100. So, the next day during the actual race start when I had the exact same hill start it was no surprise to see the same temperatures. That was just the beginning. We weren’t even close to the desert yet.
Our strategy for this race was different than when Doug did it with a different teammate two years earlier. This time, we were still using two support vehicles, but instead of one vehicle following the riders and the other running errands and being available for crew rests, we would have a vehicle assigned to each of the riders so there would be no loss of time during transitions in direct follow periods, where a vehicle has to be behind the rider in order for that rider to move. Direct follow is during the night and in certain areas during the day. We were just not fast enough as a team to lose two to three hours in transitions if we had only one direct follow vehicle. To make this strategy work, we brought in a third crew a day into the race to spell the first two crews. All of this complicated coordination worked in large part due to our amazing crew chief Laura and the super flexible and tireless crew! The fact that we ended up not finishing in the official time was because together Doug and I were not fast enough. The crew was always exceptional. The heat was beyond anything I had ever experienced. Whether we would have made the 68 hours for the 930 miles and 50k+ feet without the heat, who knows. But you don’t control the circumstances of a race.
The second major climb I was on was steep with temperatures over 110. To add to the misery, my bike was having shifting issues, one of which I fixed myself while riding and the other when I got off. Bob 2, Bike 0. Amazing. There would be two more issues. Final tally: Bob (and Vin) 4, Bike 0.
During the first day is the famous descent into Borrego Springs called the Glass Elevator. I knew Doug wanted to do this and I wasn’t going to argue to do it. He had a vendetta with this race and the whole reason we were doing it was because he wanted so badly to have another crack at it after having stopped short of the finish line in 2019 with another teammate. If he wanted to descend the Glass Elevator, go for it. Which made it all the more shocking when a couple of miles from the start of the descent Doug told my crew to get me ready for “the hill.” Say what? Now I am not afraid of any descent but so many people had told me not to do this for fear of my safety that I was starting to think I shouldn’t do it myself. But let’s gooooo! And go I did! Wow. It’s called the Glass Elevator because you can see the desert spread out before you for tens (hundreds??) of miles while descending. I didn’t try to hammer the descent as safety first always. But it was fun, except, as I descended, it got hotter and hotter to the point I was wondering if I would soon be able to hold on to the brakes or anything else. It felt like my legs were getting sunburned, but the sun really wasn’t out. At the base of the descent, it was close to 120 degrees. Oh well. What’s a few extra degrees between friends? I filed away in the back of my mind that I owed Doug a descent or two. I did give him the super long descent into Durango at the end but that turned out to be, as Doug put it in one of his lengthier pronouncements, “long.” Not exactly the same as the elevator.
A lot of the race is a blur, which explains how we finished. We just kept doing what we had to do. Every 20 minutes, or 15 if it was super-hot, or 30 if there was no place to transition or someone needed extra time, we kept switching riders and moving forward. It was all about moving forward. This is a 24 hour/3-day race – there is no stopping if you want to finish. I spent a few hours in three different hotels but over three nights I think I slept less than a total of three hours. During these times that we took longer breaks, whether in a bed or in the vehicle, it meant that the other rider was riding a longer period of time while very tired. It was pointed out to me that these longer ride segments in and of themselves would have made a good weekend ride at home, but we were doing them exhausted, and in the heat or on a climb and with hours and days of riding in our legs (and minds).
One of the times that I remember fondly (haha!) was having taken a rest in a hotel in Camp Verde, Arizona with the intention of sleeping about two hours. After an hour or so Laura shook me awake and said you need to get back out there, that Doug was about to start the climb out of Camp Verde and he is done. Can you do it? I remember saying something first like “What, where am I? Do I have a choice? I have to do it, so I am going to do it.” So, we caught up to him at the base of the climb, which I believe goes from something like 3000 feet to over 7000 feet and driving (too far) ahead of him to find a race legal transition spot. This is where I first met our third crew, which was my son Casey and friend Chris. Casey promptly informed me that this climb was similar in elevation gain and length to the biggest climb in the Bay Area, Mount Hamilton, so good morning at 1AM, Bob, why don’t you just climb Hamilton at elevation and at 85 degrees still and oh, by the way, have a good time. Which I did. At 9AM that morning, I remember telling my friend Vin that I had already climbed over 5000 feet that day and he said “today?” And Laura said while laughing “how do you think we got to this elevation?” An amusing moment that is really not significant other than that I will always remember it.
Our team was named Moxy and Grit, borrowed with permission from Sonya Looney’s company* because we liked what the name represents. Yes, Moxy is spelled “wrong” on purpose for creative and availability purposes, but you get the idea. I think one has to have both attributes to compete in this race, whether you are a solo (are they crazy???), 2X like us, or 4X. The events of the last day of the race exemplify what having those attributes mean. Doug was tearing his body apart trying to keep us under the time limit and once again doing a night pull while I tried to get some sleep.
Eventually I took over and when we reached the transition area where he would ride again, he was literally out of it. Had no idea where he was. Was standing five yards in front of his vehicle (he needed to be AT his vehicle) and clueless as to what was happening. This is no joke, and we knew he needed to rest big time. Luckily my 20 minutes of sleep in an Alfred Hitchcock hotel in Mexican Hat, Utah had given me some amazing energy, and when I took over and started riding, I said to myself “I have magical legs.” I mean holy crap, I could do anything. How did this happen? My follow car noticed this as I sped up rollers and showed speed I hadn’t shown maybe at all in the race. I told myself to reign it in or I would end up completely wasted like my teammate. I did try to keep it in check but later we would learn that I might have reigned in my speed and power, but I forgot to drink and eat enough – which had devastating consequences. I had been asked to do an hour pull and when we tried to transition it was clear that Doug needed to sleep more so I said I am good to go. I mean I thought I could ride the rest of the race if I needed to. That’s how good I felt. Magical legs. So, I rode another hour and a half and gave Doug the time he needed to sleep and be revived.
We resumed our 20-minute pulls and were soon on a rather desolate road in Utah near the Colorado border. I will remember several things about this section: holy cow the rollers were steep, the whole section climbs about 1300 feet very sneakily, I kept looking for a porta potty somewhere/anywhere!, and I was not feeling as good anymore. This is where everything started to catch up with me: the days of lack of sleep, the constant crazy heat, going hard that morning and not paying as much attention as I should have to constantly drinking and eating. I just felt like I was going really slow and was pretty much done with my pulls after 8 minutes and wondered how 20 minutes had not gone by. Uh oh.
Fast forward to Cortez, Colorado and the heat was getting more intense and I had nothing. Laura brought me an iced latte and food. I didn’t want the food. Craig, a former paramedic, was putting ice on my head and neck, and making me drink. Also checking my skin temp as I was afraid I was having heat stroke (I wasn’t). I started out on one relatively flat section and would go maybe 50 yards at maybe 5 mph, and then I would stop. Then I would try again…and stop. Finally, I reached for my phone to say I couldn’t ride…but I didn’t have my phone. In my not-all-there state I had left it in the vehicle. Now what? The crew quickly figured out something was wrong and came back (with Doug) to get me. Back in the car for me. I think I am done. I am devastated. Doug came back to the car to check on me and told me to go back to a motel and rest so I could help finish, and Laura was asking Casey to come to this location and “assess your dad.” He told her without seeing me that I am not going back to the hotel. Then he showed up – with another latté – yay! – and says “Dad, you will regret forever going back to the hotel and not finishing. Put your head on the cooler next to you and rest.” I hear all this through my fog/self-pity and comply. At some point, I burst into tears fearing that I have let everyone down, especially Doug who asked me to be on the team so he could finish. Not feeling good about crying but I think it helped.
Next, Jordan, Craig’s crew partner in crime, and the person with the most experience crewing for Doug, points to a quarter mile steep pitch in front of us, and says, “Bob, try it.” “I can’t do that.” “Try it. I will pick you up at the sign a couple of hundred yards ahead if you really can’t do it.” I get on the bike very tentatively. I push down on the pedals and they actually move. I slowly make my way up the hill and vaguely remember the team – all three cars worth – standing by the side of the road and cheering for me. I make it. I am back. 100% credit goes to my crew who would not let me fail…and especially Craig who just nursed me back with ice, massages, drinks, and food.
During this time, Doug had done almost all of the 17 miles of the first of the two climbs to the summit before the Durango descent, and I now finished it off and had an amazing descent to the base of the last five-mile climb. We took a couple of turns, then I took a minute to show Doug the rest of the route and explained that I would take the rest of the five mile climb and then I wanted him to finish it off and get the entire descent, which he more than deserved.
This was his “long” descent and my crew took me into Durango to wait at the base of the rather steep mile-ish climb into the finish line. I met up with Doug there and together we climbed this mean little hill to the finish line.
Now let me tell you something about our crew. I wouldn’t have replaced a single person. They did everything right and nothing wrong. They were always supportive and took leadership roles where they needed to. The logistics were incredibly complex, and they managed the planned and unplanned with seeming ease, although there was nothing easy about it. They smiled a lot. They encouraged. And at the finish line, where the inflatable banner was lying on the ground with no race folks to meet us, while Doug and I climbed they improvised a finish line complete with the chute and banner and cheered for us and I hope for themselves too as we crossed the finish line together (without crashing into each other). This will always be a highlight for me.
I have been involved with some amazing events over the years – 24-hour events, Furnace and Silver State 508’s, Hoodoo 500. I rode through 50 mph headwinds in Death Valley in the 2009 508. That was pretty epic. I am not sure anything will ever top that.
But this is also as epic as it gets. A week later I am finally recovering.
The RAW website says we are DNF. We are not a DNF. We never stopped trying or racing. We were battling another team in our age group, and we beat them. We are RAW finishers, although not official. This group of eight people got two of us through 930 miles and 50k feet of the most intense heat one could imagine, through some roads with 6-inch rideable shoulders and lots of traffic, through rider implosions and crazy logistics.
I did a short ride yesterday with my daughter-in-law Martine and my friend Neal. It actually felt good. I can sort of sit on the saddle again. I can feel a little power coming back into my skinny little legs.
*Moxy & Grit was started by Professional Mountain Biker Sonya Looney, and its ethos is about inspiring athletes to push a little harder in life, go for the things they are passionate about, and have fun while doing it! The socks and apparel are bold, funny, and sometimes even include expletives to have that special something to take on big adventures and make others smile!