Three years to heartbreak: Picking up from a DNF at Race Across America

Rupert Guinness didn't finish RAAM, but that doesn't mean he's done with it.

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Rupert Guinness is a cycling journalist who has covered more than 30 Tours de France, including most recently as a Tour Daily podcast host with CyclingTips. In recent years, he’s taken on a series of the most difficult ultra-endurance cycling events in the world. This year that meant a run at the Race Across America. It didn’t end as Rupert had hoped, and he penned this reflection.

A cocktail of emotions overcome me: disappointment, sadness, shame, embarrassment, frustration, anger …

My eyes well. Tears roll. What energy I have left suddenly escapes me soon after passing a hellish 55km climb from Camp Verde in Arizona. I fall into the shoulders of a crew member whose look says it all without them saying it. After two days and six hours, my Race Across America is done. 

Told I am to have another sleep, that the crew will drive me to a hotel 70km away, I know making the 12-day time limit for the 4,900km RAAM distance will now be impossible.

It is 7 pm, June 16. Seated in the caressing comfort of the support car as we drive into the sunset towards the town of Winslow, Arizona – immortalised in the The Eagles 1972 hit song, Take It Easy – my realisation of the impossibility overcomes me. Nobody will say it, but I can do the maths. If I am to have another sleep in a hotel an hour’s drive down the road, knowing I have already lost time through stops, there is no way I will reach the cut-off at Durango in Colorado 700km away. 

I can’t believe it. I am almost stunned, although I know it’s real. But the wave of emotion pours over me again in the car … not just once, but several times more as it all sinks in. Three years of preparation, including 32,000-plus kilometres of cycling each year and almost $200,000 in raised funds spent on training camps, equipment, food and various supplies, plus the financial and emotional investment of so many people, has led to the very premature end of a dream.

I ask myself, is this how a Tour de France rider feels when they are forced to abandon? I have seen many a Tour rider in tears as they slow, come to a stop and then pull their foot from the pedal and dismount before getting into the car with a phalanx of television and print cameras around them to catch the moment. And while I felt for them, I had never experienced their deep emotion. How could I? Until now …

Just like that, the Race Across America is over for me and my ever-loyal support crew. ‘Standing on a corner’ in Winslow several hours later, I still can’t believe it. My senses are still dulled. I’m not yet able to own my DNF. Whatever led to my demise, I was not up to finishing RAAM 2022. Simple as that.

The next day, my fatigue is like nothing I have experienced, even after only two and a quarter days of racing. It is far different than after the 5,471km Indian Pacific Wheel Race in 2018. Far greater than the 12 days and 3,571km of the Virtual RAAM in 2020; far greater than riding 3,777km from Darwin to Adelaide Power of the Pedal Ride over 12 days in 2021. 

However, as I now realise, those were different events. They had different purposes and different stakes. With RAAM came the build-up, the expectation and the pressure, notwithstanding the added pressures of key changes in my real life: the weight of which built beyond what I had known. 

But as the fog in my head clears over that final day in RAAM and the challenging days that followed, I find a positive rationale behind the whole experience. The flood of support does wonders, from my support crew who had all been pained by the outcome in their own and varying ways after so much commitment, then well-wishers known and not known to me from around the world. Among them too are my sponsors who firstly touch base to check on how I am, but then several days later contact me again to reaffirm their commitment to continue doing so with an eye on a tilt at the 2023 RAAM. 

It helps so much to encourage me to take a deep breath, cast aside my perceived embarrassment, shame and even guilt, and reflect on the core of my demise and learn from it: a debilitating ulnar nerve compression issue that rendered my right arm virtually incapable of holding me upright on the handlebars. I also realised I was not alone in being smacked down by ‘the toughest bike race in the world.’ 

I accept there is no way I could have known how hard RAAM really is despite all the training until after I rolled away the start in Oceanside and found out for myself in the next days.

The statistic that only 38 per cent will finish RAAM is not a lie. The probability of any starter being a ‘DNF’ is very real. After finding myself among the 62 per cent who did not finish, the challenge now is to own the cold, hard fact that for whatever reason, I was not up to finishing RAAM … for now, at least; and then to decide what I do now with the lessons learned. 

Just like that, after accepting my RAAM setback as my result and my doing, and for what it is and not what I feared it would be, a weight is lifted from my shoulders. My mind suddenly cleared and turned to the excitement of what awaits, rather than of what is behind me and cannot be changed. 

Sure, the disappointment of my RAAM ‘DNF’ remains. But it is now a disappointment that I can use to motivate rather than debilitate me. What could easily have led me to call it quits on any future ambition of racing RAAM again turns into a reason to commit to it. My RAAM DNF is not the disaster and waste of so much time, money and resources from so many that a negative half glass empty type of person might see it as, but one layer in the long game towards understanding how to race RAAM to one’s best, no matter whether that leads to a finish or not. 

Had I achieved my very best in RAAM? I believe I had not … still don’t. And it doesn’t take any greater soul searching to question if I will enter the 2023 edition of RAAM. I am actually the first to do so by a whisker, seizing the RAAM ‘Early Bird’ rate of $US3,150. And so, the journey continues. 

This is why I am where I am now writing these words, in the city of Nice in the south of France, getting ready to get back on the saddle for another adventure, but different to RAAM: the Haute Route that starts on Sunday, August 21.

I had entered Haute Route a couple of months before RAAM. Why? I first saw it as a terrific post-RAAM option to trigger fresh motivation at a time when ‘big event’ depression can kick in, no matter what the outcome at RAAM was to be. Had I raced well and finished RAAM, a mental slump afterwards was still a possibility, and I saw Haute Route as a terrific carrot on which to focus during my recovery. Had I not finished RAAM (as I had not)? Well, I did not labour on that possibility, despite knowing it existed; but were that to be, I knew Haute Route would serve the same purpose.

Now that I am here in Nice, two sleeps from starting Haute Route, my purpose for it is more precise and probably reflects my mindset in the aftermath of RAAM. The 2022 Haute Route is one of cycling’s greatest cycling adventures. 

Haute Route is a 790km stage race from Nice on the French Riviera, north through the Italian and French Alps to Megeve in which entrants will ride to an elevation of more 21,000 metres. And unlike ultra-distance events such as the 4,900km RAAM or the 5,471km Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia, Haute Route pits entrants against daily routes restricted by distance that requires riders to stop and retire for the night. It features elite amateur riders and former professionals. However, behind them and other leaders of the pack that number a staggering 500 are riders who are in it for reasons beyond what the daily or overall classification determines. 

Mine? It is two-fold. The first is to savour the seven-stage adventure for what it is, a tough but eye-opening experience through some of Europe’s most iconic mountains that feature in events like the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, in conditions like those provided to a professional rider. That means full security, mechanical, physiotherapy and medical support.

I do not want the adventure to fill the void of satisfaction left by my RAAM debut, but to set me up in mind and body for the preparation and planning I will need for my second RAAM bid next year – a reboot, an opportunity to take on a new challenge while at the same time providing the chance to stop and breath, to savour this first-ever experience of riding through some of the most beautiful (albeit extremely difficult) terrain a cyclist could dream of. 

In turn, through my portrayal of the Haute Route experience in various public formats, I hope I will be able to help other people find a path forward from their own setbacks in life. 

The key to finding that ‘how’ is a superpower to unlocking a future that will help one embrace the elements that contributed to that setback as a positive learning experience. 

Well, that is my thinking as the start to Haute Route nears. But as I have discovered in this new cycling chapter of my life, what one hopes for in any new challenge is not what one always gets. Whether the return is a success or a setback, it matters not really. What should matter most is the experience, from which there will be lessons to learn from.

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