When I think about where to even begin with this journey, I struggle.
Like most, when speaking about my time on Race Across America, it’s very hard to navigate how best to describe a week which encapsulates both one of the best and worst weeks when it comes to experiences.
However, now that I can speak about the scar and not the wound, let’s rewind a little.
To start at the beginning, it’s March 2022 and while working for my client Blue Fitness I was asked if I had the capacity to take on a new client – NZBLUE Multisport Inc.
I was intrigued and instantly needed further info. Turns out what started as a few drinks in the pub, chatting about a future possibility to compete in Race Across America by 3 dad bods and a semi-athlete, quickly became less of a pipe dream and more of a reality. From there, the first New Zealand team was born, and I subsequently jumped on board.
So, for the newbies taking a read, what exactly is Race Across America?
Race Across America – RAAM, is an ultra-distance road cycling race held in the United States. Effectively a time trial event covering 4,828km, racing from Oceanside, California on the west coast, to Annapolis, Maryland, on the east coast. The route contains 17,362m of climbing, traversing directly through the heart of America…oh and it’s non-stop!
It’s grueling. It demands physical and mental strength. It requires both determination and pure grit.
There is also no surprise that it’s also regarded as the world’s toughest cycle race.
The route pushes competitors (and crew) to the very limit as they traverse three major mountain ranges (Sierra, Rocky and Appalachian), cross four of America’s longest rivers and the Great Plains, and race through iconic US landmarks including the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, Monument Valley, Great Plains and Gettysburg.
I took on the role of Media manager and for just under a year worked closely with the team, developing and building the website, driving sponsorship for the 5 charities we were supporting and acting as the ‘colouring-in expert’, with my first assignment to design the team’s full kit. That year was honestly a real blast and as a complete rookie when it comes to cycling, I learned a lot!
The charities the team chose to fundraise for were – Raise Up, MITEY, Inspire Foundation, RHMC and Belgravia Foundation, with the goal of $100k by the finish line.
In January 2023, during our first meeting of the year, the opportunity presented itself for me to join the team as crew and travel to America alongside this team of 4 guys that I had witnessed train religiously for months. I definitely felt nervous but more excited as I had been there from the beginning, so really this was the perfect way to go full circle.
Before I knew it, my flights were booked and I was the newest member of the team!
Between January and June, it was all systems go. We had charity evenings, we had media releases and we had a team of 4 guys pedaling hard at every opportunity, getting fitter, thinner and more prepared for the challenge of their lives.
The 14th of June came around quickly, (maybe a little too quickly when I look back) and after many failed attempts of gaining Media coverage, I arranged our first TV interview on TVNZ as the sporting highlight of the evening.
I will tell you now…there is nothing more stressful than arranging a TV crew, our team and the venue, the day we were set to fly. (Or at least that’s what I thought at the time…looking back, it was nothing compared to some of the absolute shit shows we found ourselves in on the race itself)
As a shameless plug, it went SO well! We chose to do the interview at Ronald McDonald House in Auckland, to showcase one of our charities. The interview went off without a hitch and as much as I was having a semi-heart attack the whole morning…we were 1 interview down and it was a success.
“No matter how many plans you make or how much in control you are, life is always winging it.”
— Carroll Bryant
From there it was Airport time and my chance to meet the remaining crew that for months were a face on Zoom or a number on WhatsApp. The good news is that a cold beer can really bring people together and as we sat in the lounge, we were able to get the 6pm news on…and that’s right, you guessed it, our interview!
WHAT A WAY TO KICK IT OFF!
It was fun. But for me, it was definitely an accomplishment. We took photos, I shot a bunch of videos that went straight online, and overall, the immense feeling of ‘this is actually happening’ really kicked in.
I will fast forward a little as otherwise, this will turn into a novel and as most of you have a 15-second attention span, if you made it this far... thank you!
We arrived in LA, waited for HOURS to get through immigration, picked up our 2 x vans and 1 x RV for the week and made our way 2 hours south to Oceanside, for 2.5 days of preparations.
Over these 2 days, it wasn’t all ‘work’. We enjoyed dinners out, I experienced one of the best doughnuts of my life at Parlour Doughnuts with Connor our videographer (do yourself a favour and add it to your list, you can thank me later), we celebrated one of our crew, Pete’s birthday and I had the chance to try a $1 caffeine slushy, which was both delightful and slightly concerning at the same time.
Once the last of the medical supplies had been sourced from a variety of chemists, the food shop was done for the first few days, the cars and RV were kitted out with all their relevant signage and the crew were sufficiently caked in florescent clothing (headlamps and ankle braces et all) it was go time!
Cue, Race Day!
The start of the race was electric. You could practically taste the excitement in the air. Everyone was a little jittery, some were talking lots, others were anxiously quiet, you know that way when you haven’t had enough sleep but maybe 1 too many coffees? Awake, yet a little spacey? Yup, that.
No one really knew what to expect, even those who had competed before. Like everything in life, if you do it more than once, the experience is always different. We were team T406, the 6th team to start the race, and as each team lined up, ready to kick off their adventure, our crew spread out to capture footage from every angle. It was the first of many really incredible moments in the race.
Before we knew it, it was 12.06 pm, time to start the race, and also for our 9 crew to split into our teams for the day and start what will be remembered as the wildest ride of our lives.
As the crew, our main task was to get the riders to the finish line, pretty much no matter what. Looking back, it sounds so simple, right? Even writing this, it sounds so simple. Well, from 12.06 pm on the 17th of June, over the next 7 days 1 hour and 48 minutes we, as a team endured a life-changing experience to make this happen, successfully.
But it was far from easy. It was actually really f**king hard and SO intense!
Instead of going through a day-by-day account of what happened as we encouraged, motivated and at points literally pushed our riders to the finish line, (finishing in 2nd place BTW) I wanted to focus on my personal takeaways from the trip to hopefully give you a better insight.
Just in case one day you are nuts enough to want to take on the challenge.
Firstly, it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but a matter of ‘when’ we as a crew would experience what every element of fatigue can throw at you. Some were good, some were bad, and some were outright ugly.
So here goes, these are some of my takeaways as a crew member on Race Across America 2023:
Takeaway 1- It does not matter how much you plan for RAAM; things will happen that are unexpected and you have to think fast and just accept.
We were incredibly blessed to have former solo RAAM finisher, Craig Harper as our crew chief. His experience and knowledge of the race were vital to our success and he was able to bring us together as a cohesive team. His leadership held us together when we all wanted to fall apart.
However, some things didn’t go to plan. On day three we found ourselves 1 rider down for 2 days due to illness which meant we had to all work that little bit harder to make sure the 3 riders able to cycle remained at a level where they could perform, without burning out. Don’t worry, after a few days of rest he hopped back on the bike and absolutely SMASHED the rest of the course.
I’m not sure what I expected, but my job as media could not have been further from what I actually did. Of course, media was a large part of my day, but from day 2 onwards, I pretty much became a ‘third’ meaning support for the driver, navigator and riders in the cars. I took turns as a navigator for the RV and both cars and in between this tried my best to keep the content flowing to try and drive further sponsorship. Everyone was in the same boat; we all just threw ourselves into doing what had to be done.
However, there is no point in sugarcoating it, I struggled, we all did, so this is not a ‘poor me’ plea, but from having a perfectionist mentality and a meticulously planned list of what I needed each day, to not manage, really messed with my head. I worked hard to get it, but realistically, I now understand that I was utterly naïve when it came down to how intense this race actually is.
I look back now and still have an internal battle with myself which is something I have been working on since getting back. Imposter syndrome is a party crasher, stealing the joy and celebration you’ve earned. Not fun. Not fun at all. To add insult to injury, on the final day of the race, I was made aware that I had been hacked - cue digital crisis. Now, I hate catastrophising, but a media manager that gets hacked? How painfully ironic!!
It broke me.
Take away 2 – Plan for the worst and prepare to be surprised.
You never know what is going to happen during RAAM. I can say that with confidence. Looking back, however, some of the most stressful moments of the race became the most memorable. On day 3, one of our riders Aaron, was disgustingly close to coming off his bike going about 80km down a huge hill where the drop to his right could have been fatal or at least pretty bad! We laugh now, but at the time, it was a moment when we realised how real the dangers of this race were.
Our weather remained pretty steady throughout with our first rain only in the last 2 days which was a godsend. However, crossing the Arizona desert, we did reach the high 30’s/ early 40 degrees. That was challenging, more so for the riders but the heat also means the riders didn’t want to eat. One thing I never expected to do was have to persuade/force-feed the team at every opportunity we had. You quickly become very good at describing regular food as the best, most delicious, nutritious food that each rider will ever try… when realistically it’s a bite of a banana or a tiny square of toastie.
Another issue we faced was wildlife. We had deer jumping out in front of the riders ALL.THE.TIME overnight, which if on a wildlife jolly would have been incredible to witness, but watching each deer get closer and closer to our riders each time they leapt on the road was an extra pressure we just didn’t need, especially when you were feeling utterly goosed.
Takeaway 3 – You cannot prepare for the effects that sleep deprivation will have on your body.
Before the race, I was warned that sleep would be a luxury on the trip. That’s fine!! I’m Scottish and in my younger years was VERY used to partying hard and living off practically no sleep. However, those days have clearly passed and now I rely heavily on having AT LEAST 8 solid hours a night. Turns out most of us got about 8 hours over the entire race. We all knew that sleep deprivation was going to be problematic for everyone, but until we actually experienced it, we had no idea what we were up against.
It’s f**king horrible.
I’ll start with navigation. Now, navigating was tough at the best of times. Think paper map, think of each page indicating 1-time station and think in miles. Then think of random acronyms and route changes daily. Then add in the fact we were driving ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD. Once you sprinkle that with no sleep, it becomes near impossible, really quickly.
Simple math calculations like adding or subtracting a mile when you forgot to zero your odometer at the Time Station become like the most complicated algebra equations when you are sleep deprived. It was mildly amusing… and I wish I could count how many times I asked myself WTF is happening throughout the day.
However, when you do get sleep…it’s delightful. My first sleep of the trip was in a Walmart car park at about 5 am after navigating overnight on day 2. I would say to those who are thinking about crewing in the future to practise, but realistically, you can’t.
Takeaway 4 – Be prepared to get emotional…and embrace it.
What else does sleep deprivation make you do? … Well, for one, it makes you laugh and cry at EVERYTHING! Because of this, however, I grew an incredible bond with certain crew members through these 2 emotions. I have never laughed so hard.
You will not find these marginally funny, but I have chosen to include them for selfish reasons, so I can look back in years to come and smile.
One thing I loved was how through fatigue, quality relationships were built. Each of us had no choice but to be the most genuine version of ourselves. There was no bullshit. There was no room to impress or put on any kind of front.
We all showed our sheer vulnerability through the entire race and because of this, I can say honestly that I have made real friends for life. When you can laugh and cry with someone who is going through the exact same as you, in circumstances that are so far from the reality of daily life, you build a bond that is hard to put into words. It’s special. I am so grateful to say I had many moments of this through the trip and they will always hold an important place in my heart.
Oh, side note - Things I do not recommend if you are feeling emotional. A diet of - ‘No dose’, large gas station coffees, caffeine-fueled chewing gum & no food. You will age quickly, look horrendous and feel like a box of frogs. Take that from experience.
Takeaway 5 – Try hard to enjoy every moment.
I know, you have just read the last section and are thinking, what the actual f**k! However, for most, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one that is really incredible.
Do not focus on the things that are not going to plan. There will be many, every day, and when tired, fatigued and quite frankly exhausted, this can be what derails your mental health quickly. If you rely on exercise each day to keep a calm and focused mindset, as crew you will struggle as there is no exercise involved. After speaking to Ben post-race, we feel this may have been a factor in the crew’s heightened emotions. At least for me personally, it makes complete sense.
Instead, focus your attention on the micro joys. Focus on the laughs you will have in the cars, the moments where you manage to sneak in a good coffee, the moment when the crew mum brings you a bowl of cornflakes, or your first shower of the trip (mine was day 4 in a local community centre in the middle of nowhere). Enjoy these moments, grasp them with both hands and don’t let them go. My advice would be to cherish each of these as these are memories that will last a lifetime.
When I look back on the race, I know there were terrible times when we all wanted to give up. But that was the easy option and we didn’t travel halfway across the world for the easy option. I don’t even think about those moments any more. When I look back, I can only remember the moments when I felt at my happiest and that positively affected the way I handle difficult situations.
Takeaway 6 - Do not take yourself too seriously.
This is important, nearly as important as enjoying every moment. As I have mentioned, I cried multiple times as we hoofed it across the country. Of course, I wasn’t performing at my peak, none of us were. We hadn’t slept more than 1 hour a day for days on end and found the most basic tasks challenging.
Did anyone say anything? No, of course, they didn’t, we were all in the same boat. My honest advice? If you make a silly mistake, move on quickly as it gets forgotten about just as fast. When given the opportunity, laugh and laugh really bloody hard. Take photos & videos of EVERYTHING. On a trip like this, you are generally too tired to remember most things so document all you can…it makes for a brilliant slideshow once you are safely back home!
When you can, be a tourist. Buy souvenirs, the weirder the better. Talk to the locals, they will LOVE it and so will you. Turns out you can meet a number of really awesome people when travelling 12 states! One lent us her car...she was a real life angel.
Oh, while I am talking about human connection - give each other hugs at every possible opportunity. Humans rely on connection and when feeling vulnerable, all you need is a hug. It can be hard when you don't know each other that well, but I can ensure you, a quick cuddle makes you feel 10x better. We are so used to hugging our friends and family and for that to disappear overnight is really hard, so hug your crew, you don't know how meaningful it can be.
Lastly, embrace the fact that you are only human and ultimately remember the real reason why you are doing this crazy event. You chose to do it for a reason. Make sure you have that reason engraved in your mind. This will help to motivate you even in your darkest moments on the trip.
I could go on for pages but it’s best to wrap it up here before I burst into tears ... again!
That was my experience on RAAM 2023. A photographer from Scotland assisting crew a team of 4 guys as they embraced their ultimate mid-life crisis. My goal was to help the team achieve their dream of completing Race Across America. However, never would I have imagined that in doing so, my life would change in the most positive of ways.
I have learned that when an opportunity presents itself, grab it and don’t let it go.
I have learned that when an experience scares you, do it anyway. This is how you grow.
I have learned to take risks and be vulnerable because that’s when true connections in life are made.
Overall, I have learned that the second you step out of your comfort zone, great things will happen.
Embrace that big hairy goal…it will be worth it.
I was sent a quote recently which I feel sums up my experience perfectly - “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Eleanor Roosevelt.
With this said, I hope you enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed creating it.
Roll on the next adventure.