Riders Battle Pain, Hallucinations for Glory in Extreme Cross-Country Bike Race

PHOTO: PJ Lingley, a firefighter from Arizona, is shown here on his bike during this years Race Across America competition.
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There is an extreme cross-country bike race so difficult that racers are practically guaranteed to suffer injury and, quite possibly, hallucinate, yet they ride through the pain to prove to themselves they are up for the challenge.

The Race Across America (RAAM) is billed as the world’s toughest, and maybe craziest, bike race.

An endurance test like no other, RAAM racers have 12 days to ride roughly 3,000 miles from San Diego, California, to Annapolis, Maryland, without hotel stops, or even beds to sleep in, just a bike, a support team in a camper that follows close by, and the willpower to ride night and day, over mountains, across deserts, through rain and sweltering heat. If they don’t make it coast to coast before the 12-day cutoff, they are disqualified.

PHOTO: Pippa Middleton and James Middelton are seen at the Race Across America event in Oceanside, California on June 14, 2014 in San Diego, California.
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty Images
PHOTO: Pippa Middleton and James Middelton are seen at the Race Across America event in Oceanside, California on June 14, 2014 in San Diego, California.

“We cross 12 states, 88 counties, 350 communities,” said race director Fred Boethling.

The race is open to solo racers, as well as two, four or eight-person teams. The 48 racers who competed in this year’s race, which included Pippa Middleton as part of a team, came from 27 countries.

Some sign up for glory and bragging rights, some do it to test their limits, and others do it for charity or in memory of lost loved ones. Even though it is not a race requirement, several RAAM racers said they were riding for charity.

One of those solo racers was PJ Lingley, a firefighter and family man from Arizona, who was riding to raise money for the families of the 19 firefighters killed in the Yarnell wildfire last year. Lingley said whatever he suffered while on his ride was worth it for them.

“[Their deaths were] really hard for me, because it was close to our backyard,” he said.

Team Intrepid Heroes, an eight-man relay team who had trained in New York City, said they were riding for The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which supports soldiers with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. Patty George, a doctor from Pittsburgh who has dedicated her life to treating pulmonary hypertension, a rare and sometimes fatal disease that causes shortness of breath, assembled a four-woman team for the cause called Phenomenal Hope and to mark her own personal milestone.

“When you turn 40, you have a choice to make,” George said. “You can either put up signs that say, ‘Lordy, Lordy, look who’s 40,’ or you do the Race Across America.”

Soon after the race kicked off in San Diego on June 16, it was evident that it was hard-going for participants. Team Intrepid Heroes, which had been leading their division early on, suffered a setback when one of their guys crashed, injuring his shoulder, and had to go to the hospital. One of the ladies of team Phenomenal Hope took a wrong turn along the way and the team had to double back. By the time they reached Kansas, the team was suffering from severe leg cramps and other injuries.

Ten hours into his ride, Lingley had gone about 150 miles and was in the California desert, where it was still 95 degrees at night and he was suffering badly. But his support team, which included his wife, their 2-year-old daughter, his parents and volunteers, said he wanted to reach 200 miles before taking his first nap.

“I made one pit stop,” Lingley said. “[I] had a bout of diarrhea going up the hill. That was no fun.”

By 11 p.m. on the second day of his ride, Lingley had made it to Arizona, roughly 300 miles from the starting line, and took a break to pay tribute to his friends, the Yarnell firefighters, buried in a cemetery just off the RAAM route.

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