“Somehow I can’t believe that there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secrets of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four Cs. They are curiosity, confidence, courage, and constancy, and the greatest of all is confidence. When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable.” ― Walt Disney Company
He’s been competing in endurance bicycle racing for the last few years, and given that he lives in Florida, he has successfully raced the popular Bike Sebring 12/24 three years in a row as well as the Florida RAAM Cycling Challenge the last two. He’s even landed several age group wins, but his riding and racing is much more important to him than the awards that may be achieved. It’s about something much more basic, living and breathing to ride another day.
Craig Prather started bike riding about 20 years ago at the age of 16 when he jumped on a road bike and cranked out an 80 mile ride. It doesn’t seem like much now, but back then Craig says that it literally took him what seemed forever to finish. Even so, through this ride, he found his love for bike riding. He went on to do a little bit of racing back then, some road and some mountain which was popular in West Virginia where he grew up. But as often happens, life gets in the way and you simply take a different fork in the road and focus turns to other things. Craig quit racing and moved to Florida.
It would be eight years before the bug bit him again and he set out on a path racing small local duathlons and triathlons. While enjoyable, Craig would be the first to admit that he wasn’t really much of a runner, but those races served to get the “competitive juices” flowing once again. He began thinking about bike racing, the bike, that was where he wanted to be. But, before getting back to serious road cycling training, his path would once again take an unexpected turn.
It happened after a routine 5k running race, Craig had a heart attack at the young age of 31 (2008). The diagnosis was a clogged artery that would require angioplasty and the insertion of an arterial stent. Craig’s first thought was “How could this happen to me?” “I’ve always been very active and taken care of myself, it just didn’t make sense.” Well, it was that active lifestyle that doctors believed factored into Craig surviving his cardiac event. They even encouraged him to continue riding and training which he did. So despite the heart attack which occurred in March of that particular year (2008), Craig continued training and by early summer he found himself finishing his first Olympic distance Duathlon only to be stricken with a second heart attack shortly there after that was caused by a clog in the stent.
“High cholesterol and cardiac issues run in my family, so even though it was a surprise of sorts, it really wasn’t completely unexpected,” explained Craig. So with that, I had to ask Craig; “given your cardiac history, you must think about these issues when you’re out on the road in the middle of nowhere, how do you deal with that psychologically?” His explanation was simply, “look I’m not going to kid you the thoughts are there, but now since I know the symptoms I understand what’s going on with my body, this knowledge provides a bit of comfort. My doctors encourage me to ride because it is me being so fit that is keeping me alive. It’s what I was dealt.”
So with his second cardiac event just months behind him, Craig was back on the bike, this time competing in a 12hr mountain bike race (2009). No win, no podium, but it was that race that set him on the path of competing in solo endurance cycling race events with the first of which would be the 2010 Sebring 12 hr where he set an age group record. He returned to Sebring the following year (2011) to test himself in his first non-drafting 24hr. His 400 mile goal was admittedly high, but based on the strong performances others have had at that venue he felt that he had a shot. It was not to be, Craig abandon the race after 14hr and 260 miles which was once again good enough for an age group win. Then in 2012 he raced the 200 mile Florida RAAM Cycling Challenge placing second overall to Race Across America veteran Steven Perezluha.
As Craig was advancing into the world of endurance bicycle racing, he wasn’t able to leave his cardiac issues behind. Between that mountain bike race in 2009 to his 2012 Florida RAAM cycling race, he would suffer three more heart attacks that would require three additional stints. That’s five heart attacks in four years for an otherwise very healthy and fit thirty something year old. It was at this point in Craig’s story when I really needed to stop ask Craig a question that was really becoming very obvious; “What keeps you coming back for more? I mean, what pushes you to get back on the bike after such setbacks and are people in your life supportive?”
“The people that were the most supportive were some of my recreational cycling friends, especially after they saw the result of my first 12 Hours of Sebring. Many of my close friends and family were skeptical at best, but now most can see that I’m not going to give up and are coming around to being much more supportive, especially given my successful race at the 2013 Florida RAAM Challenge 400. I think it takes a special breed of person with the right mind set to want to do endurance bike racing and the Race Across America (RAAM). I prefer endurance cycling because I truly enjoy just being on the bike! I don’t always like to be rolling down the road at 170 bpm, not getting to take it all in. It may sound so cliché, but it’s my release. It’s where I like to go where all my problems won’t follow. The first time I went out and rode a road bike I was 16. I just kept doing the same little loop over and over again afraid to go too far. I didn’t have a flat kit and wouldn’t have known what to do with it anyways. I rode 80 miles that day. Haha.”
A keen eye would have pulled from that quote a hint of a RAAM qualification attempt. Well regardless of Craig’s difficulties over the last several years he has set the bar as high as you can for his newly found passion, and that is to qualify for and race in the RAAM. Craig decided to attempt a RAAM qualification at the 2013 Florida RAAM Cycling Challenge in November, but before getting to that, we need to backtrack a bit to his third Bike Sebring event in February just nine months earlier in which he would once again take an age group win and second overall in the 12hr race. Little did he or his competitors know at the time, but Craig was racing this event at an extreme disadvantage. You see it would be only a week after the Sebring race that Craig would suffer yet another heart attack, his sixth within 5 years and this one would prove to be much different than the others. No angioplasty, no stent this time, no, this would require an invasive open heart procedure to bypass two clogged arteries.
Craig once again found himself on the mend and yet that goal of RAAM qualification still kept his spirits high. It was still on the slate, but with all the medical expenses incurred the possibility that it would happen in 2013 was fading. “I took a good hard look at where I was financially and it was just not looking good,” Craig said. He shared his thoughts on his Facebook status, and with the generosity of the endurance cycling community, the impossible grew to a possible and then on to a confirmed registration into the Florida RAAM Cycling 400 mile RAAM Challenge, the final RAAM qualifier of the 2013 season.
That according to Craig is where fellow endurance cyclist Chris Miller stepped in. “Chris is a very generous guy, I owe the world to that guy. He donated his 2012 FL RAAM Challenge entry to me so that I could race and he was well aware of my situation this year. When he noticed I needed help getting to the qualifier, he jumped into action. He first convinced me to keep training and second set up an internet fund raiser to raise the funds needed to get me there. The fundraiser was a big success and I sincerely thank Chris and all those who donated, your generosity well beyond what words can describe, but I’ll make my best effort to fill you in on the experience.”
Here in his own words is Craig’s brief Florida RAAM Cycling challenge report with additional entries in italics from Fund Raiser and Crew Chief Chris Miller.
Well, we made it and I raced the 400. It was quite an experience! Chris was my crew chief and my friend Will Whitmill guided us through the race route. We saw everything and experienced so many different things in that race. I’m sure they could recall a lot more details then I can, but I know I experienced about every emotion you could think of.
Craig is as cool and calm as they come. Never once did I see him get angry, curse, or hear him complain about anything- even when he went down very hard at mile 75. After that wreck he just stood up, brushed himself off, assessed and dealt with the situation, and then moved on. He’s a quiet, confident, and a roll with the punches type of guy. I also get the feeling that while he doesn’t like talking about his own cardiac issues he does enjoy being an inspiration to others dealing with their own health issues.
We saw bears, torrential down pours and I crashed at mile 75 resulting in a bent rear derailleur along with some road rash and bruising. We fought our way back to the leaders slowly and caught back up by the turn around, but then it all started falling apart. A flat on the bike, then a few minutes later I needed a rest myself. The crew gave me 30 minutes, but would not let me sleep.
Outside of the wreck at mile 75, Craig’s race through the halfway point was mostly uneventful and pretty much going to plan with one exception- nutrition. Craig was consuming only 200 calories (or less) per hour, something I knew was going to rear its ugly head eventually. We tried to get Craig to consume more, but he had performed exceptionally well in his previous 12hr races and didn’t want to change anything for this race, something that I could fully understand. “Eventually” came not long after the turn-around at Pine Island. By this time Craig had caught back up to Anthony Parsells and passed him for the lead by not stopping at the turn-around as Anthony had. Craig pushed hard to stay ahead of Anthony but he eventually bridged the gap approximately 5 miles later. After another 10 miles or so of riding on a very dangerous stretch of road where there was no shoulder and 60+mph traffic, Craig went down for a short rest. He stated that he needed the rest because his nerves were shot from riding this stretch of road, but I could tell at this point that his caloric deficit was also becoming a factor. During this stop we were able to get some extra calories into him, mostly through pecan pies and PB&J’s- things he loves, but normally can’t eat due to his dietary restrictions. Getting him back on the bike was a little tough, which was all my fault for letting it get too warm in the support vehicle. Once back on the road, Craig seemed to get back in the groove pretty quickly albeit at a slower pace. I was ok with this slower pace because for the first time since the wreck the thought of a DNF was creeping into the back of my mind and thought with this slower pace that we could get more calories into him and better our chances to finish the race.
Back on the bike, we were rolling again. I went about 60 miles further and needed to get my feet up. The weather and miles were beginning to take there toll. We took another 45 minute break after I became ill. At this point we were just passed TS 4.
Everything was going pretty well until about 135 miles to go. By this time Craig’s caloric intake had dropped again and he began to slow considerably. We decided to replay our earlier plan- some rest, more pecan pies, PP&J’s, and then back on the road, but now we had another problem- gastric distress and projectile vomiting. I was really starting to worry again, not just about a DNF, but even more for Craig’s health. Thankfully, after about a half hour of rest his gastric issues began subside and we were able to get some fluids back into him. At this point, It was obvious that he was physically exhausted from the lack of calories, but for the first time of the race I felt he was also beginning to waiver mentally. It was a big struggle to get Craig back on the bike after this stop. He wanted to sleep and I could tell he was close to throwing in the towel. We eventually cajoled him back onto to the bike by telling him that our current location was too dangerous for us to stay due to the traffic and that if he wanted to rest we had to make it to the next convenience store a little down the road to do so. We knew full well that there wasn’t convenience store for more than 35 miles, but it worked and he was back on the bike. The next couple of hours was hard on Craig as he struggled to continue on. During this time we would occasionally blast “La Cucaracha” through the PA and each time were happy to see him move his head back and forth to the music- a good sign to us that he was at least mentally back in the race. Another good sign was that he had forgotten all about his promised rest stop at the imaginary convenience store.
Then, with exactly 100 miles to go the wheels really came off… Craig quickly pulled off to the side of the road, doubled up in pain, and began vomiting again. Worried for his health and the possibility of dehydration we decided that it was time to give Craig a two hour sleep break and then reassess the situation after he got some rest. This was by far Craig’s lowest point of the race, mentally, and physically. At this point I thought there was a better than 50-50 chance that we’d have to pull the plug once Craig woke from his sleep. Once he awoke the odds of continuing on didn’t seem much better. Craig was telling us that he had pain throughout the right side of body from the wreck and that he was still tired. We listened to him, but at the same time kept pushing him to get ready and to get on the bike and finish the race.
I got back on the bike after the crew had some comedy relief by the guy in the middle of nowhere dancing in and out of the ditch on the side of the road. We continued on at a slow pace, but we were moving. I didn’t want to give up! Eventually we found a Subway and I got some warm food in me. In no time I was back up to full speed.
It was not long after he got back on the bike that we knew he was going to make it to the finish. He was drinking more Gatorade, finished what was left of his pecan pies and was soon moving alone a faster pace. He had only one request the rest of the way which was that we get him something warm to eat. We told him not to worry, there was a 24hr Marathon Station (which was also the final time station) a few miles down the road and we’d get something warm for him to eat there. About a half hour later we arrived at the station and Craig and I went in to see what we could find for him eat. He quickly went right to the cooler and grabbed himself a burrito and looked happier than I’d seen him all day- until he tried to heat the burrito in the microwave and couldn’t get it to work. After a couple of attempts we asked the cashier to help us and he replied “sorry, it doesn’t work”. I felt worse for him in that moment than I had all day, including the wreck. Thankfully, there was another Marathon station down the road a couple of miles with a working microwave and a better food selection. The warm food was exactly what he needed and the rest of the way to the finish (outside of a flat on the follow vehicle) was pretty much uneventful.
I pressed on to the finish, moving at a solid clip…until the follow vehicle got a flat! We got that repaired then proceeded down the road just for me to get another puncture on the bike. We changed out my wheel another time and road our way to the finish! I never could have done it without my crew. Chris and Will knew when to push and when to let me rest. And that’s it. I qualified for RAAM! Now on to a new journey and yet another fund raiser to get me to the line in Oceanside!
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