Handcycling Team Completes a Record 3,000-mile Race Across the U.S.

14 States, 9 Days

Race Across America (RAAM), which many consider to be America's answer to Europe's Tour De France, isn't your average bicycle race, however, the rare breed of athlete who competes here isn't your average cyclist either. This year's brutal 3,000-mile transcontinental race began on June 20th in Oceanside, California, wound through 14 states, climbed over 100,000 feet in elevation, and culminated in Annapolis, Maryland. Held annually since 1982, RAAM is an ultra marathon race of epic proportions that pits competitors against the clock. Riders have the choice of racing solo, or on 2-person, 4-person, or 8-person relay teams.

Why is RAAM so tough? The catch is teams must finish the race in 9 days, individuals in 12. Averaging a lung-busting 350 to 500 miles of cycling per day, there are only a few riders who are physically and psychologically prepared for the demands of RAAM. This year, there were a meager 59 entries from 11 countries with only 41 riders reaching the finish line on time.

Some things that set the race apart from Tour De France are its distance -- about 30% longer -- and solo racers finish in half the time with no rest days. There is also no drafting or taking shelter from the wind.

Dream Team

Handcycling TeamPatrick Doak, an accomplished triathlete and competitive wheelchair racer from Concord, Massachusetts, who was spinal cord injured in a shooting accident when he was just 10 years old, was up for the challenge and confident that the race could be bagged by a handcycling team in the coveted 9-day window -- a feat that has never been accomplished by an athlete with a spinal cord injury.

If you ask Doak, finishing RAAM wasn't about proving he could overcome his disability or change anyone's perspective on people with disabilities for that matter. He just wanted to ride across the country with a few buddies.

"I put together a team that I felt could complete the race according to 'able-bodied' standards and that meant we would have to do it in 9 days. I think there have only been two other handcycling teams that have ever tried to complete RAAM in this amount of time. One was a 6-man team from Austria who attempted it in 2006," says Doak, whose been cycling for over 11 years and has competed in four Ironman World Championships with two second place finishes under his belt.

Doak's 4-man team -- Can Be Venture -- consisted of fellow riders Carlos Moleda, 45, a retired U.S. Navy Seal from Bluffton, South Carolina and 4-time Hawaii Ironman Champion; and Germans Vico Merklein, 31, an accomplished athlete with a stack of handcycling course records, and Dr. Hannes Koeppen, 50, a retired biologist and Ironman World Champion in 2007 and 2008. The team's name, "Can Be Venture," was inspired by a speech Doak had given last year in which he discussed how people should focus their lives and their efforts looking ahead to what can be, instead of what their current circumstances had presented to them.

"Truth be told, it was a toned down way of saying stop whining, suck it up, and move forward with your life regardless of the cards you've been dealt. It just seemed to fit nicely," Doak writes in a recent blog post about the race (www.teamcanbeventure.blogspot.com).

Against the Clock

Doak, whose intensity and sarcasm wins many over, admits, "I'm probably the slowest guy on this team. Even though we all come from very diverse professional backgrounds, one thing we do have in common is our strong desire to compete in endurance athletics. I knew the duration of the race would be challenging, but to be honest, I was more concerned about logistics."

The team spent 12 months preparing for RAAM, cycling 15 to 20 hours per week, including two non-stop 12-hour indoor cycling sessions and conference call training rides. Members of the team also handcycled for 24 straight hours in the Bike Sebring 24 Hour Race in Sebring, Florida leading up to RAAM.

With Doak at the helm as captain, Can Be Venture was divided into two sub-teams for RAAM, cycling in 8-hour shifts while taking turns leading and drafting. They were supported by 13 hard-nosed, loyal crew members, four mini-vans that were stripped of all their passenger seats, and an RV. While one team was pushing, the other was driven ahead to a relay point, using the time to rest and re-energize for their next ride.

Each cyclist had a choice of two crew members to bring along for the race -- people that they could trust to address their personal needs, such as preparing meals, doing laundry, and maintaining equipment. "I chose the 2 calmest people I know -- my brother and best friend Mike and Billy a co-worker. Even though they took it upon themselves to consume 2x as many calories as I burned, I owe my sanity and race to them," Doak writes. "My step mom was selected as crew chief. She is very tough and was a perfect fit for the job. We also had to figure out where everyone would sleep and the best way to haul all of our equipment, especially our handcycles, which are about 72 inches long. It was an adventure living in a van for 9 days, that's for sure."

The team cycled from Oceanside to the California desert, then on to the red rocks of Arizona and Utah, where temperatures reached a blistering 110 degrees. They dodged a few road hazards along the way, from lizards and roadrunners to mice and chipmunks. Unfortunately, one unlucky chipmunk turned into road kill, caught in the path of their handcycles. In Colorado, they took in the scenic views of the snowcapped Rockies while prairie dogs, elk, and pronghorns watched them zoom ahead. Pushing through Kansas and its sea of flat fields riddled with grain elevators and oil wells into Missouri's high heat and humidity -- the team's priority was to stay hydrated. At night they battled through thunderstorms and hail. They could taste victory as they crossed the mighty Mississippi into Illinois. Finally reaching the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia and breaking some of the posted town speed limits on their 60 mph descents. The team maintained their pace as they crossed into Maryland. On June 29th, they arrived in Annapolis at 2:29 a.m. Averaging 15.02 mph, the journey took them 8 days, 9 hours and 6 minutes -- well in advance of the 9-day deadline. Team Can Be Venture became the first handcyclists in RAAM history to complete the race at this record pace.

In recognition of their performance, Can Be Venture was awarded the Ian Sandbach Award -- given every year to the person or team which demonstrates the most inspirational performance that most embodies the spirit of RAAM.

Fred Boethling, president and CEO of RAAM discussed how Can Be Venture's performance was extremely impressive and inspirational to everyone involved with RAAM. "We were very concerned when they asked to start with the other teams. After all, RAAM is the toughest bicycle race in the world. It's hard enough for athletes without disabilities. But, these guys demolished any doubts. Not only are they incredible athletes, but they are personable and incredibly inspirational," Boethling says, adding "Their impact cannot be underestimated. Most people are intimidated by RAAM and, to some extent, rightly so. But, these guys have clearly demonstrated that with the proper level of fitness, planning, commitment and attitude it can be successfully completed. They proved handcyclists can compete with conventional racers. My sincere hope is that these guys have not set the bar too high, but rather will serve as an inspiration for others."

RAAM also provided the team with an opportunity to increase public awareness of The Challenged Athletes Foundation (www.challengedathletes.org), an organization that raises money to help people with physical disabilities pursue an active lifestyle through physical fitness and competitive athletics. Doak also works as a project manager for the team's major sponsor, Sun life Financial, an international financial services company, which donated funds to the Foundation to help pay for the team's expenses during the race.

Fit for Life

Race Across AmericaDoak explains that maintaining a healthy and fit lifestyle has always been a staple of his success. "I still struggle with my diet, but I try to work out at least 2 hours per day. Staying active is great for the body and mind. For people with disabilities, honing in on key areas where you can exhibit strength such as the upper body, through weight training and exercise makes daily activities much easier -- things like transferring and pushing your wheelchair up a hill. It makes you more apt to go out and do something you enjoy."

For Doak, that enjoyment always came from cycling. "I saw Ironman events as a kid and always wanted to do it. I started out racing wheelchairs and was introduced to handcycling. I met other folks with disabilities that showed me that life isn't destined by using a wheelchair."

Doak got his first handcycle in 2003 and began competing in road races and triathalons. Although the sport was initially a hobby, it has now become a lifestyle. The key to his success has been the support of his wife and son, as well as his parents and siblings. "Being injured as a kid, my family made all the difference in the world. I grew up with three brothers and one sister and my parents had the same expectations for all of us. They instilled determination to work through my disability."

So what's next for team Can Be Venture? Doak says they may try to recruit a new member to the team and are looking toward a few new challenges, including the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135 nonstop race from Badwater, Death Valley to Mount Whitney, California in temperatures reaching 130 degrees.