You might have already heard about the RAAM – Race Across America, the 3000 miles cycling race starting in Oceanside, California. The race climbs 175,000 feet, crosses 12 states and finishes in Annapolis, Maryland, the east coast sailing mecca. Racers can participate in solo, 2-, 4- and 8-person relay teams. Maximum time to complete is fixed in nine days but most finish in about seven and a half; the winner usually in just over 5 days. Solo racers have a maximum of 12 days to complete the race, most finishing in 11 days and the fastest finishing in under 8 days.
We had the chance to get in contact with Carmen, the Crew Chief of Franco, an Italian athlete that took part to this year event. We were very curious about the experience from the crew perspective.
Movimentore: First of all, could you briefly explain how come you get involved in RAAM and why you became a Crew Chief?
Carmen: This is what I asked myself every hour during RAAM: why did I get involved with such insanity? RAAM is insane! You either accept an invitation to crew it because you have no clue on what you get yourself into and this was pretty much my case, or you know what you are doing and don’t mind testing and pushing your limits, continuously.
I have known Franco (our RAAM racer) for a couple of years. In 2015, I helped him to overcome several pre-RAAM issues. I have lived in the US for more than eight years; I know how difficult it is to deal with another culture like the American one. At that time, the motto of his crew was “no women allowed on the team”. “Good luck with the boys’ club”, my comment was and didn’t crew for him in 2015.
In 2016, not only he asked me to be part of his team, he wanted me to be his crew chief. His team needed a different leadership style and he believed my managerial experience could be the case.
Now, there is a misconception about being a crew chief. People may believe the crew chief is the one with the power to tell the team what to do and watch them work, right? Wrong! The crew chief organizes the entire RAAM trip which means, flight tickets, hotels, cars, RV. He/she solves any kind of problem, pre, during and post RAAM. He/she sleeps as little as the racer but needs to keep focus until the very end. He/she organizes the driving shifts, even tells the people in the RV where to go, what to prepare, what to cook for the racer and when…
Bottom line, if the racer gets to the finish line, it is a team effort and success, on the other hand, if the racer fails, it is the crew chief’s responsibility for not doing their job the way he/she was supposed to.
M: Transportation, food, safety and a lot of other stuff had to be fixed before the start. Did the organization require a lot of work?
C: No matter how detailed oriented you are, RAAM will find the way to destroy your plans hence, attitude is more important than the overall organization. My motto is: have everything in place, then forget about it and get ready to problem solve.
We started the organization of RAAM 2016 in July 2015. I still remember people telling me it was too early to start but I didn’t pay attention to them. That was a smart move: we were able to get an RV and this year the availability of the RVs was a big issue. However, when we thought we had everything in place, all the problems happened… Why? Who knows. However, little by little, one problem at a time, we were able to solve all the issues and were ready to leave on June 14th, at 1.24, Pacific Time.
As per food, we made sure to have high protein meals and naturally anti-inflammatory dietary supplements. Moreover, we had to strengthen Franco’s immune system to make sure it didn’t flip out going from the extreme heat of Arizona to the cold of Colorado. Several DNFs are often called in Colorado because of pulmonary infections and we surely didn’t want it to happen to Franco.
M: It seems that being part of the crew is as cruel as riding the bike. Is that so demanding?
C: Some people wrote that being part of the crew is a privilege. Well, let’s debunk few RAAM myths. It is not a privilege; it is brutal! Actually, if someone asks you to crew for RAAM, please wonder what you did wrong J
The sleep deprivation is unbearable. If you are in the support car, you sleep as little as the racer. You eat even less because you don’t have time. I personally lost five pounds in two days. After a couple of days, the racer becomes more and more demanding and everything has to be done quickly, in the limited space of the car while you are navigating and thinking ahead of what needs to be done in the next hours.
Being in the RV is not such high tempo but it is still demanding. There are six or seven people sharing a limited space, 24/7. Either they find the way to get along or it is hell. Moreover, they have to be ready for any request from the support car and/or the racer. This can happen at any minute, trust me.
M: What was the everyday routine in the camper van (RV) (if it can be called routine)?
C: Not even the RV has a routine during RAAM. However, before the race, during the internal brief, we set few rules. This year the main point was for the RV to wait for the athlete at each Time Station (TS). Furthermore, part of the RV team had to be on the road to welcome the racer at each TS arrival. Seeing the team waiting for him was important to Franco so we made sure it happened every time. As I say, you RAAM with your legs at the beginning, then you switch to your brain but it is your heart that takes you to the finish line. The team was the emotional piece that helped Franco to get to the end.
I would also mention 30 minutes before approaching the TS, we used to send the RV our position (Whatsapp was a helpful communication app during RAAM) tell them what to prepare, how long we intended to stop to minimize dull moments and have everyone on the same page.
Apart from that, the RV was self-sufficient and the team was able to self-manage.
M: An entire book wouldn’t probably enough to tell what you had been through. Anyway, is there any particular you’d like to share?
C: Something I won’t forget is the bad accident that happened to the Swiss racer and part of my team was there, front line, to witness it.
I still remember the phone call from Sandro (the chef of our team) he was shocked and kept on screaming, “it is bad, it is bad, you have to come here, we need help. Bring Aldo here” (Aldo was the medical doctor of the team). Under normal circumstances, you rush to the accident site, bring the doctor with you and give all the help needed. RAAM is not “normal circumstances”, you don’t follow the rules, you are out of the race. Hence, in such emergency, you think quickly and make an instant decision, hoping it is the right one.
I remember calling the RAAM headquarters so they could localize the accident and send an ambulance right away. They did not allow us to leave the racer (Franco) for our doctor to help. That was a difficult decision to accept… The show must go on, eventually. I called Sandro back, I told him everything was under control and an ambulance would have arrived soon. The helicopter arrived to pick up the Swiss racer; I remember seeing part of my team in tears because of the shock of witnessing the entire accident. I remember Aldo mumbling, “why, why do they let these things happen”. As for me, from one hand, I wondered how ethical my decision process had been, on the other hand, we had a race to complete, a long time dream to be fulfilled and an athlete who was counting on me/us to make the right decision for all. That was so tough. By the way, we kept in touch with the Swiss team; they send us updates on their teammate, periodically. His conditions are stable for now.
M: Last edition finished recently, but I’d like to ask while memory is fresh: will you be in again next year?
C: Would I want to crew for RAAM next year? I am not sure. I am still questioning myself about the meaning of RAAM. Does it make sense at all? How did we contribute to the wellness of human beings? Do we really need to push ourselves over the limits to inspire people? Once I find the answers, I will know what to do in case they ask me to crew again.