DENVER (AP) — When Dina Hannah spontaneously decided to take up a company challenge for employees to ride their bicycles to work, she never imagined that first 15-mile commute would lead to a 3,000-mile race from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md.
"I was in the marching band when I was growing up, and that's about as athletic as I got until I was in my 40s," said Hannah, who lives in Salt Lake City.
Along with Colorado competitors Amy Shonstrom, Ann Lantz and Julie Lyons, she is part of Team Blood Sweat & Gears, which will compete next month in the annual Race Across America, a nonstop, 24/7 sprint June 16-21.
Their age category: 50-59. None were athletes when they were younger. Hannah, the youngest member of the team, was still in middle school when Title IX was passed, and it took years before school athletic programs for girls even approached the quality of boys' sports.
"The message I want to get out is that just because you're an older woman doesn't mean that you can't become an athlete," Hannah said. "You can bike. You can hike. You can ski. You can do karate. I have a friend who owns a pole-dancing studio. If you can't run, you shouldn't give up and sit on the couch. There are all kind of things out there."
The activity she has chosen just happens to be one of the world's most difficult endurance events.
The 2012 RAAM route tears through 12 states, including Colorado, with 170,000 feet of climbing (much of that in Colorado) and an immeasurable but inevitable amount of headwinds.
"People say, Oh my God, you're riding 3,000 miles?" Lantz said. "No, I'm riding a quarter of that, because I'm on a four-person relay team. So I'll have ridden 750 miles, approximately. Maybe 735. Maybe closer to 800."
For members of Team Blood Sweat & Gears, RAAM is a tag-team event. The four cyclists work in pairs. Each pair takes a four-hour shift. One person is on the bike for approximately 20 minutes, sprinting as hard as she can. Then she hops off to ride in the support vehicle that follows hard on the rear wheel of the new rider.
Meanwhile, the other pair of cyclists naps and eats in a recreational vehicle — their home away from home for the week. They sleep and rest as much as they can during the four short hours before they resume the tag-team interval sets.
Wait, why does this appeal to four women old enough to know better?
"Um, good question," Shonstrom said.
"I think when this is completed, I'm going to feel fantastic that I did something I never thought I could do. I think it will be very empowering. I think the hardest part is going to be the sleep deprivation. I've talked to a lot of people who have done this race, and they say to just forget about sleeping the first couple of days because you're so excited, and then on Day 3, you'll feel like you were hit by a load of bricks."
Last year, Lyons competed in the Race Across the West, an abbreviated version of RAAM. A veteran elite triathlete, she has competed three times in Hawaii's Ironman triathlon. No question, she says, a 24-hour race is tougher.
"The difference between this race and the Ironman is sleep deprivation and fatigue," Lyons said.
"It's almost impossible to train for that. Last year, before the Race Across the West, we tried to train with sleep deprivation, doing 24-hour training sessions, but that didn't help. This year, we're trying to teach ourselves to sleep anywhere, so that we can just sleep when we get in the RV or the car, as opposed to being in your own bed with your own snugly blankie. In RAAM, we've got to be able to go to sleep even if it's noon."
Veteran cyclists regard RAAM as more grueling than the Tour de France. The route is longer. Sleep is catnaps in a recreational vehicle or van. There aren't meals, really, just snacks in the car between sprints. Hot showers are something that won't happen until the race ends.
Sounds like fun, huh?
"The support crew has the hardest job," said Lantz.
"All I have to do is ride my bike. They have to make sure we eat, stay hydrated, stay safe, make sure we're peeing — if we go four hours without going to the bathroom, then something's wrong — and pay attention to how we're riding.
"The crew has to be super-vigilant. Imagine 1,500 miles of watching me and Julie ride a bike! And we're not going 60 miles per hour. We're going 10, or 15, or 20. Once we were waiting on a rider coming in and heard she was going three miles per hour at 3 in the morning. That's what she could do, so that meant her crew's car, right behind her, was going three miles per hour as well."
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