Whether it can be an Unfinished Story at all

Whether it can be an Unfinished Story at all

Uroš Stoklas, the Only Slovenian in the 37th Race Across America Cycling Ultramarathon

After almost four decades, the world’s toughest round-the-clock cycling race is still a great story and a magnet for all ultramarathon cyclists, including Slovenians. For Slovenian cyclist Uroš Stoklas, this year’s Race Across America, RAAM 2018, started even before last year’s race had finished. On 16 June 2017, the fourth day of the race, the entire team led by last year’s expedition leader Dejan Taškar and trainer and RAAM veteran Matic Šmon met at an urgent team meeting just below the highest point of the race, Wolf Creek Pass. After a brief discussion, a unanimous decision was taken that continuing the race in the current state of health, cycling alongside heavy traffic and huge trucks, would be too dangerous. The reason was an injury called Shermer’s Neck, probably one of the most bizarre sports injuries, in which the neck muscles become extremely weak due maintaining a forced cycling posture for a long time. The muscles become so weak that they can simply no longer support the head, so it is almost impossible for the cyclist to look at the road. If Uroš had continued racing, the condition would only have deteriorated, possibly resulting in either an accident or long-term neck damage.

“But we were doing so well,” I thought at the time, recalling the enthusiasm of the whole team the day before, in Monument Valley. Until then, everything had been running smoothly. A couple of hours later, our expectations were dashed. When leaving the land of the Navajo Indians behind and entering central Colorado, the agony of the neck pain began, and it lasted for the next 24 hours. Until then, the 800 mile ride on a wooden bike, a product developed in Slovenia, across the desert had gone incredibly fast and without difficulty, even in heat of over 113 degrees Fahrenheit. From there to the peaks of Colorado, it was only possible to continue with numerous stops, massages, and a lot of encouragement. Then the decision was made that it was best to resign, rehabilitate the injury, and return the following year, in 2018.

The Toughest and Most Attractive Race

“What is the prize in the race that makes everyone want to race?” we were asked by an elderly couple from Nebraska last year at the Seattle airport upon our arrival to the United States. They were surprised to hear that, despite all of the money that had to be raised to participate in the race, there are no financial rewards for the best – the rewards are only symbolic.

According to experts, RAAM is the world’s toughest endurance test. With 3,100 miles from the start in Oceanside, San Diego, on the Pacific Coast, to the finish in the city of Annapolis on the Atlantic Coast, it is considered the most popular challenge among ultramarathon cycling races. The legendary Slovenian five-time RAAM winner Jure Robič would probably have won his sixth race if he had not decided to resign in protest against the penalty time scores. The feature of the race is not so much competition – usually only a handful of the approximately 150 participants and 30 solo racers actually fight for victory. The vast majority of competitors are competing with themselves – their limitations, the lack of sleep, the extreme weather conditions, the time constraints (the route must be completed within the estimated 12 days), the monotony of the straight prairie roads of the central United States, the relentless short climbs in the last days of the race – as well as for the affection of the support team. In recent years, the race has also gained a humanitarian note as more and more cyclists race for charitable causes, cancer patients or sick children for whom money is raised for treatment. On average, the race is successfully completed by 40 percent of the cyclists registered. In the solo racer category, that means between 10 and 15 competitors. The top competitors’ times range from eight to nine days. In the last few years, the best competitor has been the Austrian Christoph Strasser. With this year’s victory, he tied Jure Robič’s record of five victories. The first Slovenian to complete RAAM was the legendary cyclist from Idrija, Fredi Virag. After Robič, Marko Baloh has been the most successful racer. He participated this year as well, and in the two-person category he won the shorter version of the race, called RAW (Race Across the West) from Oceanside to Durango, Colorado. More than a decade ago, Uroš Stoklas completed the race in the two-person category with Virag for the first time.

A Conspiracy of Breakdowns

In addition to the time consuming search for sponsors, setting up a support team and the quest for media attention, RAAM preparations actually start with acclimatization to the extreme heat, usually in the desert city of Borrego Springs, located near the lowest point of the race, 170 feet below sea level. For Uroš, this year’s acclimatization also coincided with treatment for a collar bone fracture – less than a month before the race, a gray cat found its way under his bike during one of his last training sessions on Slovenian roads, resulting in a nasty fall, a fracture and surgical setting of the collar bone. Thus, even before the official start, the expedition was actually doomed to fail. Nevertheless, promises to sponsors, responsibility towards the hard-won team, and the will to finish last year’s experiment were stronger, and on 12 June 2018, at 1:15 pm local time, the team crossed the starting line of the 37th RAAM and, full of hope, headed east.

For the first two hours of the race, on the streets of Oceanside until the first major ascent, the racers ride on their own, with their own navigation and without a radio connection with the accompanying vehicle. Due to the high possibility of unforeseen bicycle failure, punctured inner tubes and other unpredictable complications, all of the teams waiting for their competitor at the accompanying vehicles are relieved to see their cyclist approaching in the distance. The first climbs follow. These last all afternoon until the evening descent towards the boiling Borrego Springs. Just before the summit of the first ascent, fate intervened for the second time, showing that this year’s race would not be a piece of cake. After 60 miles, the gears broke off on a small ascent and damaged the spokes of the wheel to the extent that repair was impossible. The spare bike then became the main and only bike for the remaining 3,000 miles. It was not until Durango, Colorado – two days and 600 miles into the race – that a replacement bicycle was rented.

Without Team Harmony, the Finish is Very Far Away

The southern part of the Californian Mojave Desert, through which the first part of the race runs, experiences heat of up to 118 degrees Fahrenheit and dry desert air, providing the first real test for both the cyclist and his team. Harmony among the team members, as well as with the cyclist, is a key factor in successfully complete RAAM. As Robič commented a few years ago, the race is won by the competitor himself, but it can be lost due to the team. With lack of sleep, long working days, fatigue, and accommodation in the confined space of a camper van, it can take only a few days for a nine-member team to fall into devastating conflict. Every year, competitors withdraw due to the breakup of the team, and this year there were at least two such withdrawals.

The team usually consists of up to ten members arranged into three groups of three, two of which alternate in two vehicles: an accompanying vehicle and a camper van. The two vehicle groups consist of a driver, a navigator and a person to prepare food and drinks. These groups work roughly eight-hour shifts in the accompanying vehicle. The third part of the team takes care of the camper van, the purchasing and the kitchen. The team also requires specialists with specific knowledge: at least one mechanic, a doctor, a masseur, a nutrition expert, an electronics and computer equipment expert, as well as a PR representative. The formation of this year’s “Stoklas Polycom Team” team was lengthy and unpredictable, as two of the most important members, both RAAM veterans, canceled their participation just before the departure to the USA, including the expedition leader. A ninth team member, a sports psychologist, joined the team only three days before departure. Apart from the three members who had participated in the previous year’s race, the team consisted entirely of rookies. Despite most of them being experienced athletes, they lacked practical experience in such extreme conditions as in this race.

Safety First

Participant safety is a special aspect of the Race Across America. The many accidents in past years, including some with fatalities, have resulted in tightened safety protocols, and a long list of instructions extending over 40 pages has became mandatory reading for all participants. The main safety test is an inspection of the team, the equipment and the accompanying vehicles one day before the start. This test is a prerequisite for starting the race. Although the race route mainly follows side roads, certain sections are on highways with very busy traffic, where accidents still happen despite all of the attention to safety. This year’s race was also marred by a severe accident involving Austrian cyclist Thomas Mauerhofer, who fractured three vertebrae in a collision with a car and ended the race in hospital.

They Would Kill for Sleep

Compared to the previous year, our first goal – the time station in Durango, Colorado, at an altitude of 6,512 ft above sea level and known primarily from the Wild West conquest times – was reached about five hours faster, in a pleasant evening temperature. Despite the fatigue due to lack of sleep, the determination to reach the goal was at its peak. This year, there was no trace of the agony witnessed the previous year, which began just half a day before Durango. At the resting place, Uroš called me, as the team leader, and suggested that he would have a little longer sleep than the planned two hours. “Of course, you’ve worked hard for the last three days and built up a time reserve. Anyway, you’ve slept for less than an hour a couple of times, so, yes, of course, you can afford it.” Was that a mistake?

During the race, after two or three days’ ride in the extreme heat, which makes sleeping impossible, the cyclists would kill to get some sleep. The quandary of whether to sleep during the day at 113 degrees Fahrenheit, forcing oneself to sleep during the worst heat, or to sleep at night when the air cools down at least a little bit, usually turns out to be a false dilemma. During the daytime, despite the air-conditioned camper van, it is impossible to sleep, and during the night sleeping makes no sense, so there is no sleep for the first two days. With the increasing desire to sleep, the body gradually gets weaker, and the first real opportunity to sleep is provided in the Colorado mountains. For the body, the optimal amount of sleep in these conditions is somewhere between one and two hours. When the situation became too dangerous, Robič was allowed to have 15-minute power naps, just to break the worst sleepiness and revitalize body functions to some extent, thus enabling him to continue the race. On the other hand, sleeping longer than two hours is not recommended because the body cools down and it is very difficult to achieve its previous “working temperature”, both physically and mentally.

Magnificent Ascent and Withdrawal

Right after midnight, in cloudy and cold weather, we were back on the bike, starting the next stage heading towards the highest climb of the race, Wolf Creek Pass, 10,587 ft above sea level and the last mountain divide before the endless prairies of Kansas. We reached the foot of the mountain early in the morning, but with the first signs of the injury that had marked the race in the previous year, Shermer’s Neck. At the last stop before the ascent, Uroš’s neck muscles were no longer responding. In addition, the typical cycling bruises of the thighs and buttocks had appeared. Even the ascent itself was questionable. After a short consultation with Uroš, we decided to climb the mountain pass and continue as long as possible. In any case, safety and life were more important than the mindless continuation of the race.

Stoklas at the top of the pass

After a very successful ascent, genuine winter weather awaited us at the top of Wolf Creek, a real contrast to the extreme desert heat of the previous days. During the ascent, frost and rain only increased the weakness of the neck muscles and the bruising of the legs. On two occasions during the rainy high-speed descent on the precipitous road winding down the other side of the mountain, Uroš almost fell. The neck pain had intensified, as had the second thoughts about whether it was worthwhile continuing the race. The masseur, the nurse and the sports psychologist made extreme efforts to resolve all of the injuries, but the situation did not improve. There were straight roads ahead, with the next time station on the Missouri River, over 1,200 miles away. Paradoxically, with each mile, the goal was getting further away. It simply was not working anymore. In Monte Vista, a town at the entrance to the prairie, in a very symbolic place – literally in front of a cowboy church called the Feed Store Church – it was decided to inform the organizer of our withdrawal due to the neck injury. This was the end of the second consecutive participation of the only Slovenian at RAAM, Uroš Stoklas.

From there, the path led in only one direction – home.

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