Cycliq Athlete Michael Conti’s RAAM Story Part II: the beginning of the race and the end

July 18, 2016

The follow on to last week’s first installment of Cycliq Athlete Michael Conti’s RAAM story, Michael finishes the story: 

The start of RAAM
June 14th arrived and it was time to ride my bike 3060 miles (4,924 kilometres) across the USA. ‘3060 miles!? Holy crap!” is all I can think. “Really? 3060miles!? Yep, 3060 miles.” It has been a 30 year dream to participate in this race and I never thought I would ever have the fitness to even line up. Yet, after all the training and effort, I was now fit enough and yes, I was indeed lining up!

It was time to head to the start. I was lucky to have my daughter, Ava, with me at the starting line to keep me calm and occupied. As I reflected on the lead up to this point, I realized the years had turned into days, days had turned into hours and then hours soon turned into minutes leading me to the start of this epic journey. I kept thinking to myself, ‘am I really doing this?’ I took my starting spot under the RAAM banner and the countdown began. I was off on a journey, I had a plan but I really had no clue what lay ahead…

Day 1
For the first part of the race from the start, we are not allowed to have our crew so all I had were 2 bottles, a repair kit and my Fly12 and Fly6 to document the journey. My first chance at more bottles was not for another 90 minutes. I was alone for the first time in days with my thoughts, my fears and facing the reality that I would be on the bike for nine to 12 days.
Leaving the west coast of California was amazing as I pedaled through the mountains. In ultra cycling pacing yourself is the most important thing to learn. I have to know what my body will do on any given day and pacing yourself is the first step to knowing this. I kept thinking to myself, “don’t go hard, don’t go too hard, please don’t go too hard.” It was a matter of setting ego aside, letting the fast guys pass and not chasing them down. It’s a hard discipline I have learned but I know I could run them down in the later miles.

Before I knew it, I was coming to the first of many aid stations and we had planned to have Ava hand me the first bottle of hundreds that I would receive from crew over the journey. She executed the bottle hand off perfectly. I was now on my way into the desert. This picture of Ava handing me my bottle is one of my favorites, it’s something so simple, yet I will cherish this memory for a lifetime.

I soon started settling into the race and managing my pace. Hours were flashing by and soon it was night. The heat was just below 100°F (37.7°C) which wasn’t too bad as I actually prefer the heat and really love racing at night. I planned to race all 395 miles (635 km) to Congress, Arizona non-stop. As often happens in races – the plan in my head got thrown out the window. I actually took a 20-minute sleep break sometime in the middle of the night on my way there.

…in the first 24 hours I pedaled 400 miles (644 km) with 95, 000 pedal strokes, burned 11,000 calories and climbed 13,000 feet (3962m). Not bad for day one…

Day 2
The start of my second 24 hours of RAAM began in the afternoon heat of Arizona with a bunch of climbing coming up. My pace had been fast the first day but now it was time to really settle in. My crew put me on my climbing bike and I was in my element climbing in the heat. After 24 hours, my rookie crew were dialed in and still excited.

I knew my pace would be slower over the next 48 hours until we hit the Eastern slopes where Colorado and Kansas meet -this is one fo the best sections of the race. My goal was to get to Durango, Colorado feeling better that I did last year when I was doing Race Across the West.

I paced my climb, and at that point I was in the top ten riders in the race (or close to it). The heat was a constant 100°F, but I knew that would be coming to an end as I got closer to Jerome, Arizona. As evening fell, 33 hours into my race it was time for my first official sleep break. In ultra racing every minute counts and it’s very important to fall asleep quickly and be efficient on a break. So I typically sleep around my normal bed time. My bed was set up in the second chase vehicle, and my crew woke me up after what seemed like a minute. Back out I went – off to tackle the mountains on a new bike with newly charged Cycliq cameras and fresh water bottles.

The road to Flagstaff, Arizona was challenging. In a matter of hours the temperature dropped to 37°F (3°C) and I was fighting to stay warm and awake – it was 4am at this point. Temperature fluctuations drain me so my crew forced me to take another sleep break.

..at the end of the second day I had pedaled 300 miles (482 km) with 65,000 pedal strokes, burned 8,000 calories and climbed 17,000 feet (5,181m)…

Day 3
Heading into Monument Valley, Utah is my least favourite part of the race. The roads are narrow and sketchy into the Valley, but that being said, I do love hammering out these miles and getting to the valley but as soon as you’re actually into the Valley, it’s beautiful. It’s one of those spiritual places and definitely my favorite part of the route- I was reminded of why I race and why I love riding as the beauty was overwhelming. This year I had my buddy Seth Christensen and his family meeting us in monument valley with a film crew to do a story on my race and why I was doing it; I was suffering out on the road for a bigger cause, I was riding to raise awareness and money for ALS, the disease Seth had been diagnosed with in 2010. ALS stands for Amyotophic Lateral Sclerosis, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes muscle weakness that leads to paralysis and eventually, respiratory failure. Knowing I would be seeing him soon motivated me to keep pushing hard to get there.

It wasn’t long until I came upon Seth and his family, my crew and the camera crew. Since I was planning to stop I took some time to take a road side shower and a 20 minute nap while they got Seth got comfortable in my chase vehicle. Afterwards, when I went over to the truck and saw my buddy smiling from ear to ear I knew it was gonna be hard to peel him out of the truck after we were out of Monument Valley. This is a race where every single minute counts, but time with my friends counts even more. For the next hour the camera crew got to work helping us raise awareness for the horrible disease that is ALS, and I had Seth supporting me along my journey. I will remember this part of RAAM for the rest of my life.

At the top of Forrest Gump Hill (referenced from the movie when Forrest Gump was running across America) I had to say a quick goodbye, prep for the night and get back into race mode to get across to Durango, Colorado. I had another ‘typical’ night on the bike with another 90 minute sleep.

Early the next morning in Cortez, just before the final climb into Durango I was surprised by my friends Adam Bickett who decided to come out and ride with me at 5am after he had just won the 4 man Race Across the West relay with Monster Media. Toro and fellow Cycliq Athlete, Metal, who were also a part of Adam’s team, had shown their support the day before too by riding with me. Nothing like having company for 15 minutes on the road to take my mind away of what’s still to come. I finished the climb into Durango and to meet up with my girlfriend who was jumping on the crew to the finish line in Annapolis, Maryland with us.

My plan for Durango was to have 3 hours off the bike, get a big breakfast, a real shower and sleep in a real bed. We got to Durango in the same time as last year when I raced in RAW even though they added an extra 60 miles to the course. I felt so much better this time around – all that extra training was paying off. After the extended break it was time to head out to Pagosa Springs, Colorado. I was really settling into my groove at this point.

…another 300 miles (482km), 62, 000 pedal strokes, 8,000 calories burned and 14,000 feet (4267m) climbed…

Day 4. 
I knew the start of day 4 was going to be epic and an unknown for me as I had never ridden over 1,000 miles (1,660km) before and had never pushed my body this hard. We were 72 hours into the race and I had only been off the bike for about 7 hours. My plan was to attack from Durango to the Kansas border, and as I came up to Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado I knew I was ready to go for it on the climb. Calling Park City, Utah home means living at altitude. So the eight mile climb up to 10,600 feet (3230m) was relatively easy even with 1000 miles in my legs.

I had trained for this in the mountains at home, reflecting on my RAAM dream while alone. But my dream was completely different from reality, because in reality was 10 times better! At that point in the race, I was the top American, solidly in the top ten and I hadn’t even started to suffer yet. One of my goals was to have fun with my crew, and that was happening too. At the top of Wolf Creek Pass we had a pizza party with another crew and some awesome friends who joined us for the climb. I took an hour break, got a massage and a quick nap before the descent down the mountain to the high plains of Colorado. Now it was time to pull some of the big boys back one by one as we entered the night time.

Day four’s night shift was super special because it was a straight road and my 11 year old daughter, Ava, was going to be my navigator. She had been chomping at the bit to get in the support vehicle and tonight was the night. As a Dad who was out chasing his dreams and pushing the limits, this was a special moment. In the hours that followed I was passing the big boys one by one and Ava was bribing me with Oreo cookies for each rider I passed. And then events took a horrible turn for the worse.

Three hours into Ava’s shift and 82 hours into my race, just outside Alamosa, Colorado everything changed. Out of nowhere a semi barreled into my follow vehicle with Ava, her step dad and another crew member inside.  Riding in front of the support vehicle means that I heard it before I saw it- it was a sound I will never forget- almost like an explosion. In an instant I went from racer to Dad. My dream was now turning into a nightmare, the semi had rear-ended my support vehicle, and was mowing past me on my left with my loved ones attached to the front of the semi was heart stopping.  The semi’s driver was distracted at the time, and the crash finished on my right in a ditch out in the middle of nowhere on a straight road in Colorado. Even though parts of the truck and the support vehicle were landing around me as I rode, somehow I wasn’t hit, Ava and one other crew member were taken to the hospital overnight. The vehicle, all my bikes and gear were a complete loss.

So many clichés come to mind: ‘it’s just a race’ or ’there’s always next year’ or ’thank god everyone is ok’.  I have said “at the end of the day, the most important thing is that everyone is alive.”  In reality all of those race related clichés are an absolute lie, I want to be back in the race doing what I love with who I love, living my dreams.  I want to know what it was like to ride 3,000 miles.  I also wanted to push my body further beyond what my mind says is possible.  I am so thankful that RAAM has the rules of a follow vehicle at night and I am so thankful to my crew who literally put their lives on the line to save my ass.

My crew and I had an awesome experience at RAAM, hell we had an awesome experience for the first 3.5 days living, laughing and racing.  In the days after the accident we shared our funniest moments, along with the jokes and pranks that I can barely remember. I am also thankful to my sponsors who believed in me enough to help back me in this very expensive journey. I am not sure what the future holds, I’m not sure what is around the corner and not sure what will happen tomorrow, but I do know I am so happy to be here today with my family and friends.

Listen to RAAM Radio for more of Mike’s story, read his ALS fundraising update on Seth’s website, or check out the Utah news channel KSL’s coverage of the incident.

Here at Cycliq, we are so thankful that Mike and the support crew, including Ava, are safe. We are so proud of your RAAM journey, Mike, whether or not you crossed the finish line, all of the preparation; physical, mental and emotional and all of the time spent away from loved ones to spend lonley hours on the bike training for this massive event are testimony to your passion for the sport. You are a champion and we couldn’t be prouder. Go number 548!!