Almost everybody knows about triathlons, the Tour de France and marathons. All are endurance races that test competitors to their very limits. However, there’s one race that’s been held since 1982, which, until I saw Stephen Auerbach’s documentary Bicycle Dreams, I had no idea existed. It’s the endurance trial to end all endurance trials, called the Race Across America.
Triathlons are intense but fairly short; involving a long swim, long bike ride and marathon run. The all-time Iron Man competition record-holder completed the events in just under eight hours. The Tour de France varies in route and distance from year to year and also varies in terrain. Currently they ride every day for a week, take a rest day, get back on the bikes for a week, have one more rest day, and then go for a final week in the saddle.
The Race Across America has them beat. This ultramarathon covers 3,000 miles and the start and finish points vary, but the transcontinental route is always Southern California to the East Coast. Since 2006 it has been between Oceanside, Calif. and Annapolis, Md.
Unlike the Tour de France, the Race Across America has everybody line up, the gun is fired and it’s every man for himself. No rest days. No time off. Sleep all you want, but if you do you’ll lose. So far, the fastest completion was under eight days and the longest just over 10. This means, in order to be competitive, you must be able to cover 300+ miles every day of the race. I could not cover 300 miles with 10 days to do it. This is one grueling competition.
With the event getting no TV or press coverage, the only way to sample the event – unless you want to compete in it – is the Bicycle Dreams film released in 2006, which covers the 2005 event, start to finish, from San Diego to Atlantic City. (This was also one of the two races in the history of the event to record a fatal accident). The first thing to note is that many of the participants barely make it across California to Arizona before they throw in the towel.
Along the route, competitors do sleep for a couple of hours here and there, in support vehicles that follow along. But it doesn’t take long before total exhaustion kicks in. The riders have hallucinations and even the strongest are constantly wondering why they don’t give up and quit. That would be the common sense thing to do. But common sense doesn’t play a big role in this.
Many hang on and a few actually make it to the finish line. The 2005 winner, Jure Robic – who is probably the greatest almost-completely-unknown endurance athlete in history – won the race five times from 2004 to 2010. He was killed in September 2010 in his home country of Slovenia while descending a hill on his bike.
This is an award-winning documentary that’s available on DVD and Internet download.
Anyone who is interested in endurance sports will marvel at the guts and determination of the participants in this race. And may Jure Robic R.I.P. Rated 3.5 out of 4.0 reasons to pedal pedal pedal.