The halfway point was always going to come with mixed emotions. As the sleep deprivation started to take its toll, the riders realising the magnitude of the challenge they were putting their bodies through, and the acknowledgement that we still had the same distance yet to travel.
We hit halfway just before sunrise in Kansas. The team had been dreading the windy state. If it blows against you through the Great Plains it can feel like an uphill challenge despite the long, flat, straight roads. Someone was looking after us though, we had a tailwind and the most beautiful of sunrises.
Coming out the other side the riders were pumped and knowing we were closing in on other teams helped to push them harder and faster.
Team Captain Joe Townsend described it as a “mix of adrenaline, excitement and exhaustion” on day four as the team held off an able-bodied team from the very first pull of the pedals.
A full day of racing then ensued. Townsend commented: “..every time each member of the team came off the bike they had nothing left but miraculously managed to find something to do it all again on the next pull. We went back and forth over the rolling terrain. For me my standout moments were holding off a very strong cyclist over a 5k stretch and then taking 500 meters out of another on a sustained climb where I would have been expected to be dropped”.
Exhausted at the end he knew he had to do it all again as his teammates were hurting just as much as he was. The riders have spoken often about how the RAAM has given them that camaraderie back that they’ve missed since being medically discharged. Today the Band of Brothers definitely had each others’ backs. The enemy in their sights? Team after team of able-bodied riders they were determined to scalp.
The Rockies the previous day had already wiped out Jaco and Ryan as they’d climbed to 11000 feet in under 10 miles. Facing the rolling terrain of Missouri next saw fresh challenges for the fatigued bodies. The constant up and down and up again.. everyone was checking the maps to see just how much of America the team had already torn up.
Jaco Van Gass was suffering, not only from sores on his stump, as many of the amputees were by now. The constant sweat and rubbing of prosthetics was irritating the skin and added more challenges they’d not anticipated. Coupled with a tummy bug, Jaco was wiped out. It was time to realise the Race Across America really is a marathon and not a sprint.
Going to sleep in a RV, and waking up in a different state is quite disorientating and as each shift works to a 200-mile/12 hour stint, huge swathes of America are missed each time. But the one thing you can’t escape whether it’s your turn in the saddle or the bed, is the weather. The RVs are either sweat boxes or the rain lashes on the roof like a flock of tap dancing pigeons. After the dusty plains of Utah and Arizona, the rains came to cool us …Tropical Storm Cindy partied overhead. Lashing the riders, the road surface became treacherous and Ryan took a tumble off his bike in the middle of the night. Nursing a bruised hip and sore leg, he battled on, determined not to let his teammates down.
Stepping out in to the saddle on the morning of Day 6 everyone, riders and support crew felt a gear change. We were closing in on the finish line, we were ahead of most of the teams, sitting in 5th position of the 8-person race, and while the rains continued the finish line was, almost, within touching distance. Just a mere 600 miles to carve up first.
The Appalachian mountain range was standing in our way.
The toughest part of the RAAM, in terms of climbs to conquer, were made even worse by a long list of detours and route changes that were added at the last minute. Andy and Craig took most of the climbs, with Rob and Michael smashing their own fair share too. Hills that went on seemingly forever, and descents of up to 55mph it was one of the hardest days of the race. The heavily wooded area doesn’t reward you with he views like the Rockies did… until you eventually reach the top about 8 hours of riding later.
Coming out of the clouds and into Maryland, our twelfth State in 6 days felt amazing. A quick handover to the other team to ride in the final 100 miles and the end was nigh. The rain was unrelenting as we headed off in to the night. Deer, armadillos and badgers providing their own race obstacles. The riders navigated them well and, as Ryan took to the saddle for the final time, the adrenalin and caffeine kicked in and he rode as strong as he had on day one. Hitting the final time station at 3am was a bit of an anti climax, as there was no welcome party, there were no fireworks, just our support vehicle, a flag and a light-sabre!
Then it was on to pick up the rest of the riding team. Waiting patiently at a petrol station on the edge of Annapolis this wasn’t quite the heroes welcome they’d imagined 3143 miles ago. But as they headed towards the ceremonial finish line spirits lifted and the realisation of what their tired aching bodies had achieved was just starting to settle in. They may have carved up America riding solo in the saddle but they set off from Oceanside as a team and they crossed the finish line as a team.
“We rode out strong and we finished strong,” said double amputee Michael Swaine as he high-fived team mechanic Don Mclean. The fact that the UK was celebrating Armed Forces Day made this celebration even sweeter - achievements don't get much bigger than this.
Josh Boggi, the first triple amputee to complete the race raised his bike above his head, posing for the cameras and revelling in the moment.
As the team hugged, took selfies and embraced loved ones who’d flown from the UK to meet them it was hard to believe less than a week ago we were in California.
“If I can do this, I can do anything,” said Ryan Gray.
And he’s right.