RAAM 2013: Maria Parker’s Amazing Comeback Victory

story by Jim Parker,

To give hope to victims of cancer, Maria Parker proved that even against overwhelming odds, victory can be achieved.  In 32 years, the Race Across America (RAAM) has never been won by someone coming so far from behind.

Maria Parker RAAM 2013 StartOceanside, California, June 11, 2013 at 12:33 PM local time:

Maria crossed the starting line, having just given a brief interview to the microphone-holding RAAM starter.  He had pressed her for a time goal to finish the 3000-mile transcontinental bicycle race, but she told him she just wanted to finish, and that she was racing to raise money for brain cancer research.  Within a span of several minutes, all five female solo riders left the festive Oceanside pier and began the long journey.  These were all incredibly tough and seasoned ultra-endurance athletes who had been preparing for months, if not years, to reach the distant goal of the pier at Annapolis, Maryland.

The race is divided into 55 sections ranging in length from about 35 to 90 miles, with a time station marking the end of each section.  Maria set a cautious and moderate pace, as planned, for the first few time stations, which took her up a long climb, then down the famous “glass elevator” and then across 338 miles of brain-broiling desert.  Every crew worked feverishly to keep their racer cool, dousing them with water or packing their jersey with ice to fight the road-level heat of 115F.  Hot desert dust filtered through every porous fabric, and the racers’ lungs.  Some wore masks, but Maria did not.  The desert crossing took about 24 hours, with the ending marked by reaching the Congress, AZ time station and a small inflatable swimming pool that many racers, including Maria, took a dip in.

Next was a series of big climbs to Prescott and Flagstaff, but Maria had a problem.  She had severe nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting and could not eat.  Without the calories going in, she could not produce the energy to climb. S he had planned to use a powdered supplement as her main calorie source, but she felt that her body was rejecting it.  During one section of the climbing near Prescott, Maria fell over three times when she stopped and was too weak to un-clip her shoes from the pedals.

Maria sick

Dan, Genevieve, and Ted are very worried about Maria’s ability to go on early in the race. Her GI system was not processing the supplements and she was calorie and fluid depleted.

Maria and the crew retreated to the home of Crew Chief Dan Fallon, a resident of Prescott, where Ted Barnett, a former professional bicycle racer, cooked up foods he knew worked under conditions like this.  Rice and avocado helped get Maria back on the road and climbing strong.  She had fallen behind all the women after the digestive issues and the long delay in Prescott, but had been gaining ground and passing some racers on her way to Tuba City, AZ.  The wind was gusting to 40 mph, and the highway through the Navaho Nation was in very poor condition, yet bustling with high-speed traffic.  The wind was so strong it picked up not only sand, but small stones that pelted Maria as she flew down the broken asphalt.

That’s when disaster struck.  She was 4 miles past the Tuba City time station, traveling on Hwy 160 when a woman, distracted by her cell phone, plowed into the rear of her follow vehicle in spite of the flashing amber lights and the fluorescent slow-moving-vehicle triangle on the rear of the van.  Police estimate she hit at 65 mph, with the follow vehicle going about 15-20 mph.  Maria heard a large explosion and then bits of metal, glass, and plastic raining down around her.  The follow vehicle was a Dodge Caravan that had been significantly modified for the race.  It had a full exterior “wrap”, custom front rack with LED lights and stereo PA system.  On the rear was a heavy steel rack that could hold three bikes and was currently holding her two spare bikes.  Inside were custom shelves holding clothing, equipment, food, and spare wheels.  But most importantly, the Caravan held Maria’s youngest son, Will, and crew members Ted Barnett and Dan Fallon.  Upon impact, the Caravan’s rear end was lifted several feet off the ground and the whole vehicle pushed forward about 30 feet.  The rear half of the steel beam of the bike rack folded like a pretzel, while the front end of the beam ripped a large hole in the gas tank, immediately draining 12 gallons of gasoline onto the hot pavement.  Ted’s left hand went through the air vent of the dashboard while Dan’s face was cut under his eye.  But Ted and Dan were in the front.  Will, riding in the third row, far in the back, was closest to the impact and received the most injuries.  He was bleeding from multiple cuts on his arms, legs, and face from flying glass.  He had a big goose egg on his scalp where his head hit something hard.  He was dazed and spitting out bits of enamel and blood, but never lost consciousness.  Fortunately he was sitting on the right side of the vehicle.  The impact occurred on the left rear.  The left rear of the vehicle was crushed.  A helmet sitting to Will’s left was flattened like a pancake.

At this point of the story, I’ll switch to first-person. I was trying to sleep in a hotel in Tuba City when the call came in… there had been an accident 4 miles down the road and I needed to get there NOW.  I was sharing a hotel room at the Moenkopi Legacy Inn with my two crewmates, Peter Sword and Tammy Funk.  We threw all our stuff into our duffel bags and drove down the left side of the road past over a mile of motionless cars and trucks, until we reached the scene of the accident and a host of emergency vehicles.  I was directed to my son, Will, sitting behind the van.  He was alert with rivulets of dried blood crisscrossing his arms and legs.  I was more concerned with the lump on his head, just above the hairline.  I am an MD, specializing in Radiology.  We do CT scans of the head every day for injuries like this, but they are often unnecessary.  After I assessed him, I felt the likelihood of a serious head injury was very small, and that the best option was for him to be observed overnight.  The emergency personnel on the scene wanted to take him away to a distant hospital in the Navajo Nation.  I thought it best to keep him with me in the local hotel and only take him to a hospital if I saw any worrisome signs of brain swelling or subdural bleeding.

Will at scene

Dan, our crew chief, assessed the overall situation with the destroyed vehicle and equipment, and the injuries of the crew.  Over Maria’s strenuous objections, he declared her race over with the dreaded “DNF” designation (did not finish) and let RAAM HQ know that we were out of the race.  At the time, I agreed.  I could not see any way that we could proceed.  This was a dangerous stretch of highway, which RAAM HQ was well aware of.  They had taken the extraordinary step of designating this part of the course a mandatory “direct follow” zone.  We were also facing hours of investigation into the accident, which had to be done by both the Navajo Police and the Arizona Highway Patrol.  Not to mention, we had only one bike, no spare wheels, and our son, Will, with a potential head injury requiring overnight observation.  The accident occurred just before 7:00 PM, local time.  According to the official police report, the investigating officer left the scene at 10:35 PM.  After the investigation, we retreated to the Moenkopi hotel.  We still had our one room there, but every other hotel room in Tuba City was full.  Maria and I stayed in the room with Will, while the rest of the crew drove an hour to a hotel in Flagstaff.  Spirits were down.  To have come this far, seen Maria suffer through the desert and over mountains, only to have her race end at the hands of a careless motorist, disheartened everyone.

That night, we checked on Will frequently and by morning we knew he would be fine.  He just had a scalp bruise and nothing more serious.  We drove to Flagstaff to meet with our crew.

The buzz over the phones and internet was that we should continue the race in some fashion, simply to carry on the goal of raising money and awareness for brain cancer.  The Flagstaff hotel let us use a conference room, and we had a long meeting where everyone voiced their feelings about continuing.  The majority of the crew wanted to go on, unofficially.  For some, the trauma of the crash, and the perceived risk of getting back on the course was too much.  We lost three crew members, including our Chief, Dan Fallon, who concluded that putting Maria and crew back on the RAAM route was not worth the risk.

The decision that I and the majority, agreed upon was to drive Maria to Utah, well beyond that dangerous stretch of highway in Navajo country, and let her start there on our one remaining bicycle.  Outside the hotel, one of our crew members was trying to be helpful and decided to move all remaining crew vehicles into the shade inside a nearby parking garage.  With the sound of screeching metal, he suddenly became aware that the bike was on the roof of the Chevy Suburban and it did not fit under the entrance to the garage.  The handlebar was destroyed and the rear wheel slightly bent.  For a moment we thought the decision to continue was moot. But we had packed an extra handlebar, and Ted, our head mechanic, was able to get the bike in reasonable working condition in about an hour.

That evening, Ted and I drove Maria to a junkyard west of Tuba City, where the Dodge Caravan had been hauled.  We picked through the wreckage and salvaged some clothing and equipment that we would need for the journey.  The local men in the junkyard were speaking Navajo, which has a unique and spiritual quality that is hard to describe.  When our work was finished, we began to leave the junkyard and head for Utah.  That’s when the most crystallized, resonating moment of the entire RAAM experience occurred for me.  Maria turned and said, “I really want you to let me start where I stopped yesterday.”  This was a statement, not a question, and the tone was part plaintive little girl, and part gritty street fighter.  Ted and I knew that she would never be satisfied unless we complied.  Despite the hours of debate and compromise in the conference room earlier that day, we promptly agreed.  The next thought also occurred rapidly: such a start would put her back OFFICIALLY in the race if we had the approval of RAAM HQ.  We appointed Ted the new Crew Chief, he phoned HQ, and five minutes later, Maria was back in the race, officially.

When we put Maria out on the shoulder at the place that she had stopped, Hwy 160 was a different road than 24 hours earlier.  Traffic was light.  The wind had died down.  Drivers were polite.  Ted and I conjectured that the Navajo gods had been appeased by Maria passing their test of bravery.  Her passage through Navajo land would now be safe and peaceful; and so it was.

Now the race was well into its fourth day, and Maria was dead last, hundreds of miles behind her competition. The Colorado Rockies were coming soon and an insidious enemy, asthma, was about to threaten Maria’s ability to breath.

 

The Rockies and the Plains

“You’re joking, right?” was the reply from my daughter, Genevieve, when I told her that her mother, Maria, was back on the course near Tuba City and, once again, officially in the Race Across America.

Genevieve was back in Flagstaff with the rest of the crew, thinking the race was over, while Ted and I had just dropped Maria back on the course where she had stopped 24 hours earlier.  Once we convinced her that indeed, it was true, we could hear shouts of joy from the rest of the crew.  The energy level and excitement, which plummeted after the accident and the DNF, were back stronger than ever.

We needed that energy because we had a lot of work to do and fewer people to do it.  The crew structure had to be reorganized.  Until the Tuba City accident, we had three crews of three rotating through an 8-hour “follow” shift each day, and an independent media crew of three, setting their own schedule, in their own vehicle.  The 3-person follow crew consisted of a driver, navigator, and feeder.  After the accident, we initially switched to three crews of two and left the media crew intact.  The 2-person crew seemed to work well at first, but as the shift dragged on, it became very burdensome for only two people to carry out all the tasks that were needed.  We decided to incorporate the media crew into the support crew.  This not only gave us the 3-person crews that we wanted, but eliminated the need for one of our two rental vehicles.  We were always conscious of keeping costs down; which was a big reasons we opted not to use an RV.  We had started RAAM with four vehicles, all owned by crew members.  Then one was totaled in the accident, and the other was Dan’s which he needed to take departing crew members to the airport in Phoenix and to return to his home in Prescott.  By embedding the media crew with the support crew, we eliminated an expensive rental vehicle and had the added benefit of better support for Maria and closer media coverage.

Genevieve, who traveled from her home in Ramallah (West Bank of Palestine) to be on the Media team, joined my crew as navigator, but her specialty was loving and caring for her mother’s emotional needs.  She had replaced Tammy Funk, a very good old friend of Maria’s.
{Below: Genevieve brushes her mom’s hair as part of her “wake-up” ritual.}

One of the risks of having close friends and family members as crew members is that they have trouble remaining emotionally detached from the suffering of the racer.  When Tammy decided to go home after the accident, the “routine” suffering and danger of RAAM probably was equal in her mind to the trauma of the accident.  The third person on our crew was Peter Sword, a recently retired social worker, and a sailor experienced with handling small boats in the open seas.  Peter was in charge of feeding Maria and keeping track of supplies and equipment that she needed.  While we had official divisions of responsibility, to some degree, we all did everything.  Peter drove a lot, especially when our follow-shift was over, even though I was officially the driver.

Our follow-shift ran from midnight to 8:00 AM, and we were responsible not only for getting Maria down for a sleep break, but the much harder task of waking her up and getting her back on the bike.  Genevieve developed a routine to wake her up, massaging aromatic oils into her legs and brushing her hair, while Peter and I fetched coffee and breakfast and prepared the bike.

Maria usually slept in a hotel near the course, but sometimes took naps on a bedroll on the ground.  When our crew’s follow shift was over, we were relieved by Jim “J.C.”Chickos, Tom Roberts, and Jonathon Bunting.  Their shift covered most of the daylight hours, 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM. J.C. became the driver of his crew after Rob Redfearn departed for home after the accident.  Rob remained in close contact with me throughout the rest of the race.  He and an old friend, Sharon Powell, were invaluable in providing online research (weather reports, hotel information, race analysis, etc.) which they would text, email, or call directly to us.  They were essentially acting as crew members working from home.

J.C. developed our navigational system, which was based around GPS-enabled Samsung Galaxy tablets and mapping software that did not rely on internet service.  Tom Roberts, an avid Cruzbike rider, performed marvelously as the feeder for this crew, and also gave wonderful leg and foot massages to Maria.  Jonathon, one of Maria’s many nephews, stepped in as navigator, but his main job was videographer for 3000 Miles to a Cure.

Ted Barnett led the third crew, which followed Maria from 4:00 PM to midnight.  When Maria and I discussed getting back on the course after the accident, one of our only requirements was that Ted would agree to go on.  It turned out to be an easy decision for Ted, a former pro bicycle racer.  He loves a challenge and competition, and taking charge of a race team 20 to 30 hours behind the competition was right up his alley.  The feeder on this crew was Will Parker, our son, who turned 19 during RAAM.  No one understood the risks of continuing in RAAM as much as Will, who got the most banged-up in the accident, but he made a decision, as an adult, to keep serving despite the risk.  Carly Redfearn, Rob’s daughter, replaced Dan as the navigator for this crew, but her main role remained as the key media contact, a role she performed very well.

Now back to the race…

Back on the course east of Tuba City, on the way to Kayenta, Arizona, Maria suffered through an 11-mile stretch of or pavement that had just been scraped and grooved in preparation for re-paving.  This was one of the longest sections of really rough pavement that she would have during RAAM.  Riding a recumbent has many advantages, but one of the few disadvantages is that you can’t stand up on the pedals while crossing over bumps.  Each bump sent a shock through the bike frame and into her body, with only a thin cushion between them, and the painful shocks continued relentlessly on this long stretch.  Eventually the pavement became more forgiving as we approached Kayenta.  Our next two times stations that night were in Utah, as we followed the RAAM route we saw signs marking famous Utah rock formations, like Mexican Hat, but the darkness hid them from our view.  By dawn Maria crossed the Colorado state line.  At the crew shift change, Maria and both crews gobbled down breakfast burritos from a McDonald’s in Cortez, Colorado.  We had a looming worry: the Rocky Mountains were up next and Maria’s only bike had gearing and wheels intended for the flats.

We needed new wheels, but the one bike shop that we found in Cortez catered to mountain bikes, and didn’t carry lightweight 700c racing wheels that she would need for climbing the Rockies.  Maria climbed 13,000 feet from Tuba City, AZ to Durango, CO on heavy wheels.  But in Durango, we found her a nice set of lightweight SRAM wheels that would make the rest of her trip over the Rockies a little easier.  Ted also swapped out the large chainrings for a compact set, because coming up were some of the toughest climbing sections in the race, including Wolf Creek Pass at 10,857 feet elevation.  Maria climbed these mountains like a pro, and won a race with a wildfire that was threatening to close the pass (photo below). 
The weakness and wobbles that plagued her near Prescott had vanished now that she was getting the calories that she needed.  At the top of the highest pass, in the middle of the night, all of Maria’s crews converged and suddenly it was party-time, with the stereo speakers cranked all the way with Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”.  We were dancing and toasting the air with Gatorade while getting Maria bundled up with a coat and gloves for the chilly descent.  Our other daughter, Lucia, who lives in Denver, had come down to cheer her mother on, making it both a celebration and a family reunion.  We also didn’t realize it yet, but Maria had just significantly closed the gap between her and all four of the other women through one of the toughest climbing sections of the race.

The next day, the jubilant feeling of making it over Wolf Creek Pass was gone and replaced by a serious threat to Maria’s health.  In the heat and the slow climb up to the last major pass, Cuchara Pass, before the Rockies gave way to the plains, Maria had begun complaining of tightness in her chest.  In just a few hours, she had worsened to the point that she felt like she couldn’t get air into her lungs.  She was wheezing.  Maria has never had asthma, but her symptoms were that of bronchial narrowing.  More worrisome, she suddenly had a deep rattling cough that was producing thick gray sputum.  She pulled off to the side of a picturesque mountain road.  Tom, J.C., Peter, and I tried to comfort her as about thirty beautiful Shelby Cobra cars thundered past us, their drivers smiling and waving- a world apart from Maria gasping for air and wondering if she can go on.  Pneumonia, acute bronchitis, asthma aggravated by inhaled dust?  I am grasping at straws.  In my hospital, I have access to all the tools of modern medicine.  Here on the mountainside, I have what happens to be in my shaving kit in the car.

I pull out some nearly expired antibiotic pills and started her immediately on them.  J.C. pulled out an Albuterol inhaler that he carries for his own asthma.  We started her on that, too.  The inhaler seemed to give her some temporary relief, and she began climbing again.  But the symptoms came back and lingered for days.  As soon as possible, we phoned her doctor at home and got a prescription for another inhaler, and made sure she used it as prescribed.

By the time Maria made it to Kim, Colorado, she had overtaken Kathy Roche-Wallace, a RAAM veteran who holds the 50-59 women’s record.  And despite the breathing problems, she had also significantly closed the gap on the other three women.  Our last night in Colorado was spent at a wonderful B&B, Eagle Haven, in the small town of Walsh.  All three crews converged again for a festive visit with our wonderful hosts, Shelly and Crazy Bear.  We got started early that morning, well before the sunrise, and Maria ran into a cool fog.  The mist was soothing on her inflamed bronchi.  The medicine and mist helped Maria’s breathing and soon she was back to full speed… just in time for the plains of Kansas.

By the time Maria got to El Dorado, Kansas (TS 28), she had passed another racer, Lisa Dougherty, the 42-year old endurance champion who won the Furnace Creek 508 in 2003 and finished the Leadville 100 mile Trail Run in 2010 and 2011.  Maria had also cut the lead of Cassie Schumacher to under 4 hours and Seana Hogan to under 11 hours.  The writing was on the wall.  At the rate Maria was flying over the plains, she would take the lead, we predicted, in another six or seven time stations.  But it happened a lot faster than that.  Before we got to the very next time station, Maria passed Cassie Schumacher and Seana Hogan dropped out due to a medical condition, which we later heard was acute bronchitis.

{The graph below illustrates the rapid and steady progress Maria made to close the gap and take the lead after the accident. The solid lines are actual, the dotted line is projected after Hogan withdrew.}

The accident occurred 612 miles into the race.  It took Maria about 1000 miles to come from dead last, thirty hours behind the leader, to claim the lead.  But she still had 1,342 miles to pedal, and many trials to go through.  Could she hold off the other three women?  How would she handle the very steepest climbs of RAAM which wouldn’t occur until West Virginia and Maryland?  This race was not over.  Maria would need what she would later call her “secret weapon” to get to the finish line in Annapolis.

Maria Parker RAAM 2013 Near Finish
Speak to the Mountain, Maria
Maria left Kansas ahead of the remaining three women in the race, but looming ahead were 25 time stations spanning Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.  Word of her comeback spread to the other racers and crew in our vicinity, who celebrated having Maria back in contention.  A very special meeting of Maria and Valerio Zamboni, a racer from Monaco, occurred just as we were leaving Jefferson City, Missouri.  Maria first met Valerio a few months earlier in Alabama at the Heart of the South 500 race.  Despite the differences in nationality and language, they had an instant kinship as long-distance cyclists with a boisterous joie de vivre.  Near dawn and about to cross a bridge over the Missouri River, they momentarily stopped their race for hugs and kisses; and Valerio, a RAAM veteran, said something to Maria, in his deep Monacan accent, that we would frequently quote for the rest of the race: “You will cry many times, but you will finish.”

The tears were, indeed, coming more frequently now.  My crew’s job of getting Maria awake and back on the bike every morning was getting more and more difficult.  The sleep deprivation and endless roads with frightening traffic was taking its toll on Maria physically, mentally, and emotionally.

As she approached TS 40 in Greensburg, Indiana, she was 10 hours ahead of the nearest woman.  She was also very discouraged.  She had stopped at a grassy spot in front of a CVS pharmacy.  Her crew pulled over and gathered around her, offering her food and encouragement.  Ted Barnett showed her the book with the climbing profiles of the next few hundred miles but the coming terrain was irrelevant in her current state of mind.  She had come 2,300 miles across baking deserts and vast mountain ranges, but this was the lowest her crew had seen her… worse than the nausea when her gut rejected all food, worse than the trauma of the accident in Tuba City, and worse than acute bronchitis after inhaling dust and forest fire smoke.

Ted and Tom console Maria and work on getting her back on the road.

Carly had an idea.  She posted the following on Facebook; “Maria is having a very hard day today.  She told us every time she checks her mileage she’s gone less than she thinks.  She is mentally exhausted.  Comment with words of encouragement for us to read to her tonight.”

They didn’t have to wait that long.  Within minutes, scores of supportive messages poured in.  Inside Maria’s helmet were earphones and a microphone that were part of a new Bluetooth device called a Cardo BK-1 that made talking to Maria from the follow vehicle as easy as if she was sitting in the seat next to us.  Back on the road, Carly began reading from the torrent of love and support flowing through Facebook.  Maria went from  her lowest point in the race to feeling the power of love from friends and fans around the world.  That night as she was passing through Indiana on a quiet farm road, she crossed a vast field of fireflies.  Thousands of phosphorescing points of light, floating, soaring, and swirling all around her left her giddy with joy and awe.  One of nature’s most sublime light shows and the words of hope streaming through her headset left no doubt that God was near and listening.

When the crews changed shifts, we would discuss what problems our racer was facing, and try to help the next crew deal with the problems as effectively as possible.  Every crew quickly learned of the power of the words coming to Maria from all over the world, via Facebook, and read aloud through the Cardo system.  Whenever Maria’s spirits seemed to sink or she was climbing a particularly painful hill, we would read comments like these to her:

You are an amazing woman Maria and an inspiration to women across the world of all ages to go for their dreams, to dream big and to see the goal and cross the finish line!  You can do this!  I believe in you and so does everyone else across the world that is hearing your story of love!  You look beautiful doing it too!!  Much love dear friend!

* You are such an inspiration and have thousands of followers & admirers, in awe of your perseverance, stamina & accomplishments!!  Praying for strength for you to keep on pedaling as we know you will!!  Believe as so many believe in you!!

* You are one of the few in the whole world who can do this!!!  Keep strong and know there are so many people with you in spirit, not just who you see around you.  I know there is an angel riding with you along with our prayers!!!

* You are an inspiration to moms, sisters, cyclists, and providers the world over – especially because YOUR mileage counts double.  What an astounding gift to share with us all – living vicariously through your incomprehensible success; mile by mile.  Go Maria Go!!

* Dear Maria, from half way around the planet in Australia there are many cyclists, cancer patients, families of such that are following you across the US. Your courage is inspirational and I know you can do this. Turn your pains and emotions into aggression, grit your teeth and finish this beast.  Our thoughts and wishes of strength are with you.

* Maria, we (my husband and I) don’t know you, but we know Jenny and have been so encouraged by your journey of a tough physical trial in honor of Jen’s physical trial.  You are an example of Christ’s love and an amazing inspiration as you go the extra mile (no pun intended, well maybe a little) to make a difference.  Praying for you.

* Like Dory says “just keep swimming, just keep swimming” I think that you are amazing.  As the daughter of a mother who succumbed to cancer at the age of 36, and as the mother of a 4 year who just completed a year of treatment for Rhabdomyosarcoma, I can say with confidence that it is because of people like you, that one day there will be a cure for carcer. YOU ROCK!!!!!

The fan support didn’t only come through email and Facebook. More and more people drove to meet Maria along the course.  They carried signs, took photographs, had Maria sign autographs, and shouted words of encouragement.  Some brought food for the crew, which was a refreshing change from McDonalds and Subway.  We welcomed their presence and Maria seemed to draw energy from her fans.  Whenever possible, she stopped to thank people for supporting her and her fight against brain cancer.

Fans near St. Louis, MO.

My last follow shift of RAAM started after midnight in Bridgeport, West Virginia.  I stood by the side of a road at the top of a hill in the small city, waiting for Maria to arrive.  My crew mates, Peter and Genevieve were waiting in the nearby low-budget hotel, which was full of construction workers engaged on a nearby highway project.  When I finally spotted Maria and the Chevy Suburban following her, I called Ted on the cell and pointed out the hotel.  Ted spotted me easily in his headlights because my jacket was covered with 3M reflective tape.  Ted, in turn, directed Maria to the hotel while I ran over to meet them.  We had a lot to do, and we all had a feeling that tomorrow, the penultimate day of the race, was going to be one of the toughest days of Maria’s life.

Ted and his crew mates, Will and Carly, took our vehicle, and left us the Suburban.  They drove off, planning to get about 150 miles down range before getting some sleep.  Peter and I fed Maria a milkshake and two cheeseburgers that we bought at a McDonalds five minutes before it closed for the night.  Genevieve helped get Maria showered and in bed for a few hours of sleep.  From Maria’s point of view, she had hardly closed her eyes when we woke her up before dawn to get ready to ride again.  Coffee and a granola bar for breakfast, while Genevieve brushed her hair and applied sunscreen.

It took approximately an hour longer than usual to get Maria started on her way to the next time station in Grafton, West Virginia.  She arrived at 7:30 AM, having climbed more than 5000 feet in the previous 65 miles, accomplished mostly during the preceding night.  Ahead of her this morning lay the toughest time station segment in all of RAAM, a 70 mile section to Keyser, WV with more than 6800 feet of climbing and 7100 feet of descending.  My crew was almost finished with our shift, which normally ended at 8:00 AM.  Then Maria made a special request: “I want you all to stay with me until the next time station.”
At this point in the race, we really could not turn down any reasonable request from Maria, so we let the other crews know that were staying on duty until Keyser.

What followed was our witness to a spectacular series of seemingly relentless climbs punctuated with dizzying descents.  We read her many emails and Facebook messages from both friends and strangers as she crossed over Backbone Mountain and other ridges in the Allegheny Mountains.

Many of the notes were highly spiritual/religious, and for what Maria was going through, seemed very appropriate.  This one from P.G. quoted The Bible, Mark 11: 23-24, and was one of my favorites: “Whosoever shall say to this mountain ‘be thou removed’ and does not doubt in his heart that it will be done, he shall have what he says.”  Speak to the mountain, Maria...this too shall pass.

And Maria spoke to the mountains and they were removed.  They would rise up in front of her and before long, they were falling away behind her.  As the mountains moved we read her another message from a woman far away:
————————————-
Maria, thank you for riding for a cure.  We have a 12 year old daughter that was diagnosed with stage 4 medulloblastoma, an aggressive childhood brain cancer.  She has been through very aggressive treatment to try to save her life.  She had to re-learn to talk and walk.  She had nausea and vomiting for over 1 year.  Initially they gave her a 30% chance for survival.  Due to good response to treatment then now say 70% chance of survival.  Thanks to people like you, pushing for a cure brain cancer kiddos have hope.  As recently as 1980′s mortality was 100%.  You are awesome.  Thank you so much for your sacrifice.  You are helping many people to have a chance at life.
————————————

As Maria pedaled ahead of us, she said, I’m crying now, and I can’t see the road.  We replied, laughing and crying at the same time, “we are too, and we can’t see it, either.”

There were so many heartfelt and emotional messages coming in that it was overwhelming, a miracle of love brought by modern cellular technology.

We arrived at the Keyser, West Virginia time station, a Walmart, a few minutes before 3:00 PM, and seven hours beyond the normal end of our shift.  Maria collapsed onto a bedroll on a grassy spot by the parking lot. We poked some macaroni and cheese in her mouth and she went to sleep for about 30 minutes.

When she awoke, we watched her take off, followed by the next crew (Tom, J.C., and Jonathon) to begin the last 245 miles of the race, knowing that our follow-crew duties for RAAM were now over.  We were exhausted as we headed for Annapolis to get some sleep before the finish.  The other two crews still had difficult shifts, that would take them through a long night, the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania, and up the steepest hills of the entire RAAM course, which surprisingly occur in Maryland.

The rain came and went the afternoon Maria crossed the finish line. In nearly 12 days of racing, severe thunder and hail storms had raged nearby, or passed overhead while she was sleeping, but never had a raindrop touched her body.

photo courtesy of Tom Spence,

In Annapolis she was met not only by rain, but all four of her children, her parents, her entire crew, and many friends who made the trip to support her during the final miles.  Maria said it was the happiest moment of her life.

At the award ceremony that evening she received the Seana Hogan Award for the fastest female, the Rookie of the Year Award, the Queen of the Prairies Award, and the Trane “Unstoppable” Award.

Only one of the four other women who started the race, was able to finish; Cassie Schumaker would arrive the next day.  Despite the accident that took her off the bike for nearly 24 hours, Maria had done the impossible, in what RAAM officials called the greatest comeback in RAAM’s 32-year history.  She also set the record for women over 50 and was the first woman over 50 to be the first female finisher.

In the spirit of “Speak to the Mountain” Maria is carrying on her efforts to raise money for brain cancer research.  Brain cancer is, indeed, a big mountain that takes many lives, young and old, every year.  Help us remove this mountain into the sea by supporting 3000 Miles to a Cure.

Mark 11:23-24 (King James Version)
For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.

Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.

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  1. hyman lieberman says:

    you are one tough cookie…and a great mom!

  2. Slo Joe says:

    Thank you Jim for showing us what obstacles Maria overcame besides slaying the road and mountain. What some of us don’t realize is how important a crew is to the racer providing not only physical support but mental encouragement. All of you are champions for sure.

    I’ve paraphrased Yogi Berra many times about endurance racing: 50% of the battle is 90% mental. We can only imagine the mental toughness it took by Maria to continue.

    Ride Long and Prosper

  3. Chick on a Stick says:

    As a 55 year old female recumbent rider, I salute you! As the daughter of a dear, dear father who lost his life to brain cancer, I thank you.

  4. Willie Hunt says:

    Absolutely mind boggling how Maria made up for lost time. It’s so hard just to finish RAAM solo within the time limits, much less be the “comeback kid”. From one ultra athlete to another, my hat is certainly off to you!

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