'Never heard of it."
"It's a fairly unpublicized event," says Jim Penseyres. "ABC put it on TV from '81 through '87, but even then it didn't get much public attention."
Penseyres is referring to Race Across America (RAAM), an annual bicycle race that, on Sunday, will kick off its 26th running in Oceanside, and end 3043 miles later, in Atlantic City. Outside Magazinecalls it the "World's Toughest Race."
Jim Penseyres, 60, and his brother Pete, 64, are members of the eight-man North Coast Cycling Team, representing North Coast Community Service, a nonprofit connected to Vista's North Coast Church. Both men are UltraCycling Hall of Fame inductees. Pete has run RAAM in three decades, owns or shares four records including the race's heavyweight title: fastest solo ride across America. It's a record set in 1986, and no one has bettered him it yet. His brother, Jim, has run RAAM as a solo three times, as part of a record-setting four-person Human Powered Vehicle team once, and as part of an eight-person team once, going for twice this year.
Jim's on the phone. I wanted to know how the race started.
"My brother and I did the race in the '80s as a solo event. We switched off; one would run every other year." Silence. "Over time the pain dissipates," Penseyres laughs.
"How did you prepare for a race that long?"
"We commuted back and forth to work. I had a commute that was 38 miles one way. So, I had a good base, even through the winter, as far as mileage. About six weeks before the race, we started increasing mileage and doing overnight rides..."
"Overnight rides?" This could get ugly.
"We'd get off work on Friday and ride all night long. We rode out to Palm Springs, then around the Salton Sea, come up over Julian, and back to Fallbrook. We'd get 400 miles in and then have a day off."
Inconceivable. "Ride the whole 24 hours?"
"Yeah. Our wives followed us in the car and shook their heads," Penseyres laughs. "But you have to simulate the race. You have to get used to riding all night."
Ride all night...penal colony on an asteroid. You make the choice. "And riding 400 miles in 24 hours gives you an idea of what a transcontinental race would be like?"
"Yeah. Anything over a couple hundred miles gets you into different problems. Some of them can be just feeling bad, not thinking you can go any further." Silence. "You don't jump into racing 3000 miles in a week. We built up. We were going 350 miles a week, and we built up to 450. I think we ended up at 800 or 900 miles a week."
"What about eating?"
"Your body is going downhill after the third day [of riding]. It's a fuel problem. How much fuel can you eat per hour is how long you can stay on the bike. Basically, it's being able to process," Penseyres laughs, "as much food as you can over a short period of time.
"I think '84 was the first year we started using liquid food. The product we were using, which is no longer available, was produced by a chemist who made food supplements for cancer patients. It had predigested amino acids in it. I'm not sure what went into it, but it was a complete food."
"It had already been digested so it was ready to go to work?"
Yummy. Perhaps it's time to move along. "What were you looking for when you went off the starting line that first time?"
"Just to be able to finish. You couldn't take the whole race in your mind. You could only look at the next town, and you'd ride to the next town. And after that you'd ride to the next town. You had to break it down into small increments.
"The rules are such that your crew can't drive up alongside you and chit-chat; you're basically out there by yourself. You try and stay focused, but you daydream a lot. When you're staying up 22 hours a day, you go through an incredible emotional roller coaster."
"What kind of support did you have?"
"For the solo event you always have a car right behind you with two or three people in it and bikes and so forth. We mostly took family members. Eating was always done on the bike. Urinating was also done on the bike. About the only time you had to get off was for a clothing change or go to the bathroom.
"If you're not on your bike rolling down the road, you're not making headway. So, we timed how long we were off the bike with a stopwatch. It was, 'Hey, you want to spend ten minutes in the can or do you want to go three or four minutes in the can and take off?'"
Readers can follow the race live at raceacross.america.org. By the way, Jim Penseyres lost his left leg (below the knee) in Vietnam.
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