- 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 that I am still in the race and need to go ride a segment but I am so 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 2021 Race Across the West just happened to go through the area of the US experiencing record heat. No matter because I had a massive 1 day of heat training – I rode out to Stevens Canyon a week before the race on a day my little Wahoo Bolt said it was over 100. Woohoo! The day before the race start we practiced where we would meet Doug after the unsupported 23+ miles of race start and just climbing the hill that is right at that spot I saw temps well over 100 off the pavement. So the next day during the actual race when I had the exact same hill start it was no surprise to see the same temps. And we weren’t even close to the desert yet.
Let me explain just for a moment our strategy for this race, which was different than when Doug did it with a different partner 2 years earlier. We were using 2 support vehicles, but instead of one vehicle following the riders and the other running errands and being available for crew rests we would have both vehicles assigned to one of the riders so there would be no loss of time during exchanges – changes from one rider to the other – in what is known as direct follow periods, where a vehicle has to be behind the rider in order for that rider to move – nighttimes and in certain areas during the day. We were just not fast enough as a team to lose 2-3 hours in transitions if we had only one direct follow vehicle. In order to make this strategy work, we were bringing in a 3rd crew a day into the race to spell the first 2 crews. All of this worked! We didn’t finish in the official time because we weren’t fast enough. Period. The crew was always beyond amazing. 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 temps over 110. And 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 2 more issues. Final tally: Bob (and Vin) 4, Bike 0.
On that first day is the famous descent into Borrego Springs called the Glass Elevator. I knew Doug wanted to do this and I gave him “permission,” meaning I wasn’t going to argue for 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 somewhere a few hundred miles from the finish in 2019 with another partner. 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, fearing for my safety, had told me not to do this 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 10’s (100’s??) of miles while descending. I didn’t try to hammer the descent as safety was 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? Anyway, 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 more lengthy pronouncements, just “long.” Not exactly the same as the elevator.
A lot of the race is a blur, which kind of 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 total in 3 different hotels but over 3 nights I think I slept less than 3 hours. A couple of times we each took longer breaks, whether in a bed or in the vehicle, but that meant of course that the other rider was riding a longer period of time while very tired. It was pointed out to me that these ride segments would have made a good weekend ride on their own, but we were doing them exhausted and in the heat or on a climb and with maybe 2 straight days of riding in our legs and minds.
One of these times that I remember fondly (haha!) was having taken a rest in a hotel in Camp Verde, Arizona with the intention of sleeping about 2 hours. After an hour or so Laura, our amazing and incredible crew chief (have I mentioned that she is awesome?), shook me awake and said you need to get back out there, that Doug just started the climb out of Camp Verde and after his long pull 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 3rd crew, which was my son Casey and friend Chris. Casey promptly informed me that this climb was similar in elevation gain and length to Mount Hamilton, so good morning Dad at 1AM why don’t you just climb Hamilton at elevation and 85 degrees and oh by the way have a good time. Which I did. At 9AM that morning, I remember telling 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?” Another amusing moment that is really unimportant but something I will always remember.
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 this race, whether you are a solo (are they crazy???), 2X like us, or 4X. The events of the last day of the race for me 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. But eventually I needed to take over and when we reached the transition area, he was literally out of it. Had no idea where he was…standing 20 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 for him, 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 just showed speed I hadn’t had maybe at all in the race. I told myself to reign it in or I would end up completely wasted like my teammate and I did try to do that but later we would learn that I might have reigned my speed and power in 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 evident 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 I think everything started to catch up with me: the days of lack of sleep, the constant heat, going hard that morning while not paying as much attention as I should have to constantly drinking and eating. I just felt like I was going really slow and I was pretty much done with my pulls at 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, and I didn’t even want the food (so rude!). 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? My crew figured out right away 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 the bike actually moves. I slowly make my way up the hill and vaguely remember the whole team standing by the side of the road part way 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.
Amazing Doug had done almost all of the 17 miles of the first of the 2 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 5 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 5 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.
Our crew. Wow. I wouldn’t have replaced a single person in this crew. 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 handled 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 and this picture says it all.
I have been involved with some amazing events over the years – 24 hour events, Furnace Creek 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 as epic as it gets. A week later I am finally recovering.
The RAW web site says we are DNF. Maybe officially but we are no DNF. We never stopped trying or racing. We were battling another team in our age group and we beat them. We are RAW finishers, but in 73 hours not 68. This group of 8 people got 2 of us through 930 miles and 50k feet of the most intense heat one could imagine, through roads with 6” rideable shoulders and lots of traffic, through rider implosions and crazy logistics.
I did a short ride less than a week after the finish with 2 of my favorite people: 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.