U.S. has a Tour de force of its own


In the ultra world, top test is Race Across America

July 15, 2005|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

In 1993, Outside magazine compiled a list of the eight most physically grueling events in the world.

The baddest of them all wasn't the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon (No. 8) or the U.S. Army's "Best Ranger Challenge" (No. 4) or the Tour de France bicycle race (Mon Dieu, it didn't even make the list!).

The toughness trophy went to Race Across America, the 3,000-plus-mile, West-to-East-Coast cycling marathon that's held every June.

Jure Robic of Slovenia, this year's winner, pedaled cross-country in nine days, eight hours and 48 minutes. Needless to say, Robic didn't stop to take many pictures.

Since the inaugural race in 1982, a mere 181 solo riders have completed a RAAM. That's a fraction of the 2,249 daredevils who have climbed Mount Everest. Steve Born, a senior technical adviser with the Hammer Nutrition company in Whitefish, Mont., has ridden five RAAMs and provided road support on seven others.

Born, 46, is a member of the UltraCycling Hall of Fame and holds two American distance records: a north-south traverse of Idaho (640 miles in 39 hours, 29 minutes) and a west-east ride across Texas (574 miles in 32 hours, 20 minutes).

"The highlight of my career," he has said, came in October 2002. Born did the Furnace Creek 508 - a notoriously hilly ride through California's Death Valley - twice without stopping, covering the 1,016 miles in just over 82 hours.

Although he considers himself retired from competition, Born notes, "Once you get into ultra-endurance sports, you're in it for good."

Thus, he someday would like to become the third person to ever ride cross-country in both directions, the so-called Double Continental. Born spoke with The Sun by phone from Montana.

The Tour de France, which covers 2,200 miles over 23 days, ends Sunday, July 24, and the world is watching Lance Armstrong shoot for a seventh consecutive victory. Compare that race with Race Across America.

It would be hard to say which is tougher. The primary difference is they have 20-some stages where they go all out and use team tactics.

With RAAM, once the clock starts, you just keep going. That's one of the challenges: determining how much sleep you need. Most of the riders will sleep 90 minutes to three hours a day.

With a race like RAAM, the farther you go, the more mental and emotional it becomes rather than physical. It's a mind-over-matter thing. There's a saying in RAAM: The race doesn't begin until after the Mississippi River.

Can you describe what you put your body through during RAAM?

Physiologically, it's harder than anything I can describe. You go through so many permutations of feeling great and feeling exhausted. Think about just mowing your lawn 22 hours a day for nine or 10 days.

It pushes the envelope to where you find a new envelope. The recovery from that can take weeks and weeks. The main problem I've had is with my hands and feet going numb.

Most endurance riders are thinly built. Is that a process of natural selection where the lightest guys just go faster? Or is it a byproduct of burning up muscle mass riding long distances?

I think it's a bit of both. You look at the climbers on the Tour: They're physiological wonders. They probably have weight-to-strength ratios that are off the charts. You see this in distance runners, too.

But in a race like RAAM, you're also burning 9,000 to 14,000 calories a day. I wouldn't want to go into that race at 4 percent body fat.

At your endurance-racing peak, you rode 800 to 900 miles a week. Did you do any cross-training?

Early in my career, when I lived in California, I trained year-round on the bike. Then I moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, and then up here to Whitefish, Mont., and I got into cross-country skiing. Minute for minute, that's the best workout there is.

When I did that Furnace Creek Double 508, I don't think I ever rode more than 400 to 500 miles a week. But I'd put in a lot of kilometers on my cross-country skis. For me, an hour on the skis is worth two-plus hours on the bike.

What are the long-term effects of ultracycling?

If there are any negative effects, I haven't seen them. What I have gained doing RAAM and ultracycling is confidence. One of the things I like to live by is that the only limitations you have are the ones you impose upon yourself.

How much of what you've learned about training and nutrition applies to the weekend athlete?

Most athletes, whether they're weekend athletes or hard-core athletes, are putting the wrong kind of fuel into their bodies and in the wrong amounts.

I like the convenience that comes from a sports drink or energy gel. I usually stay away from solid food during workouts and races.

If you're going to use solid foods, make wise choices - something like a bagel or banana. Nuts are usually a good choice. You want complex carbohydrates. Pretzels are good. Those organic, Fig Newton-type bars are wonderful.

I've found most athletes consume way too much salt. We forget that our diets are so sodium-heavy. We have this huge reservoir of sodium in our body.

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