The Ultra Man
Bikes Etc|February 2017

How endurance athlete Jason Lane over came life-altering surgery, being run over and profound sleep deprivation to ride the race of his life.

Joseph Delves

Somewhere just across the Cheat River in West Virginia, Jason Lane is floating above the road watching a man who looks very much like himself ride a bike down the highway. He can feel his hands hurting but they feel like those of a different person. As the miles roll by he’s becoming ever more irritated by his inability to wake up from the dream. In his mind he’s resolved that at some point earlier he must have been hit by a vehicle and is now in a coma. Worse still, he’s not sure what the people following behind him are up to. Sitting on his wheel in a large silver people carrier, they seem familiar but somehow different, as if friends he once knew have been replaced by imposters. Increasingly, he’s convinced that their intentions might not be entirely benevolent. Until he can figure out what’s going on, he decides it’s best not to accept their offers of food or water. Ascending into the remote mountains on the eastern side of the river, he’s overcome by the sensation of having climbed the same corner over and over again, only to emerge in the same spot without ever getting closer to the summit.

We spend around a third of our lives asleep and if we don’t get enough very strange things start to happen, just as it had with Jason Lane. Our immune system suffers, we can become depressed and in the short term frequently leads to disorientation, hallucinations and bouts of paranoia. Having set off on his bike next to the Pacific in Ocean side, California, eight days before, Jason had managed just seven hours sleep in the course of the 4,000 or so kilometres he’d covered on his way east across America.

Inaugurated in 1982, the Race Across America (or RAAM) runs non-stop from the Pacific to the Atlantic, traversing 4,800 kilometres across the centre of the USA. That’s well over a thousand kilometres more than the average Tour de France. Yet, rather than taking three weeks, the winning rider will complete the course in as little as eight days. To accomplish this they’ll spend less than an hour off the bike each day. That’s 23 hours rolling at a time. Some will even go as far as Kansas, over 1,500 kilometres into the Midwest, before pausing for the first time.

To achieve this feat, each competitor is followed by a support crew whose job it is to care for and motivate their rider, helping them to eke out every last bit of performance from their screaming bodies. When Jason’s crew eventually persuaded him to climb off his bike someway up Cheat Mountain, they realised they might have pushed their man a little too far. Still suspicious, and eager to get on with the final stretch to the Atlantic, he wouldn’t trust them near him while he slept, so they had to watch from a distance as he got a solitary hour’s shut-eye, one hand still holding his bicycle.

‘The hardest thing about riding a supported race is the sheer simplicity of it,’ a more lucid Jason tells BikesEtc. ‘The crew sits behind you in the van and does everything for you, like preparing food, clothing and taking care of navigation. Their goal is to keep you on the bike 24 hours a day. With their help it’s possible to count the time off the bike each day in minutes not hours. Therefore the limiting factor becomes me, how long can I stay on the bike? Mentally how long can I keep going? It’s not even about speed, just how long can I keep moving forward.’

Under normal conditions, when Jason does hop into the van for a few minutes rest, his crew jump into action. As he tries to sleep they massage his body, run tests, monitor his sleep patterns and sometimes even plug in an IV drip to get essential salts and fluids back into his system.

It is a huge physical, logistical and financial challenge, but despite the huge scale of the undertaking, Jason’s first RAAM attempt came about almost by accident. A multi discipline adventure athlete with nearly 20 years experience, in 2010 he underwent extensive reconstructive surgery on both knees to treat a genetic abnormality. Barred from running as part of his rehabilitation he found himself spending increasing amounts of time on his bike. The year after his surgery he entered the Adirondack 540, an 875km ultra race in the Appalachian Mountains. Riding unaided against a slew of riders with support crews he nevertheless finished first. As a qualifying event for the race across America, Jason’s unexpected win catapulted him into the hardest ultra event of all – the RAAM. Even among experienced ultra racers it has a fearsome reputation, along with a 50% dropout rate. For most entrants, simply finishing within the 12-day cut-off limit is challenging enough. Yet many actually come to compete.

A WAR OF ATTRITION

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