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Taking on the Race Across America: Talking With Team4HIVHope 2011, Part Two

December 22, 2011

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As an action-packed year for the HIV/AIDS community draws to a close, takes stock of 2011 in a new series of articles, "2011 HIV/AIDS Year in Review." Read the entire series here.

What's it like to be part of the first-ever team made up mostly of openly HIV-positive riders to complete the Race Across America (RAAM)? Team4HIVHope conquered this grueling 3,000-mile challenge for the first time this past June, and blogged all about it along the way. Shortly after the race ended, team members sat down with to recount the trials and triumphs of being part of a four-man team with a committed crew in a six-day cycling race across the United States. Now, as the team welcomes new members for 2012, we look back on that conversation, presented in two parts.

Check out Part One, and read about how Team4HIVHope was received by the cycling community and others as a team of gay, predominantly HIV-positive ultra-endurance cyclists.

See photos, read messages and learn more about the Team4HIVHope 2011 racers and crew.

Watch a teaser of Patrick Burns' film-in-progress about Team4HIVHope!

Steven Berveling

Steven Berveling

Jim Williams

Jim Williams

Don Smith

Don Smith

Francisco Liuzzi

Francisco Liuzzi

Sandra Smith

Sandra Smith

Carol Hyman

Carol Hyman

Martin Berveling

Martin Berveling

Olivia Ford: Can you give a quick rundown of how the Race Across America works, and how the crew figures into the process?

Francisco Liuzzi (the 2011 team's only HIV-negative racer): The Race Across America comprises solo riders, two-man teams, four-man teams and eight-man teams. Our four-man team was responsible for roughly 3,000 miles. The entire United States was broken up into 52 time stations. The time stations were spread out from the start to the finish, and there were different durations depending on what the terrain was: You might get 30 miles from time station to time station, if you climbed over a mountain; or you might get 80 miles from time station to time station, if it was a downhill or a flat road.

We broke the team up into two two-man teams. Jim and I worked together, and Steve and Don worked together. The way it worked as far as a team is that Jim and I would ride from one time station to the next. From there, the other two riders would transition, and then they would go. Jim and I had very little contact with the other two riders throughout the whole race. We would see them intermittently and quickly have an exchange -- usually with everybody screaming to get this thing moving quickly.

The way it worked as far as the two riders on the road is that they would split the mileage between time stations as well: One rider would do four miles or so; then he would get off the road and the other rider would do four miles, and so on. When you were on the road, you were doing five miles, or four miles, as hard as you could. The other rider would be up the road, waiting for you. As soon as your wheel passed him, that rider would go for five miles. You would jump in the back of a van and be shuttled up the road. Then when the rider reached you, you would get back out there.

There was no pacing; at least as far as I was concerned, there was never any easy riding. You were on the road, going as hard as you could; or you were in the back of a van, trying to get five minutes of sleep before you got back out there, or shovel as much food in as you could. And this was hour after hour after hour, around the clock. This event was unbelievably challenging, much more so than I thought it was going to be.

Another thing that happened is that, for instance, Jim and I would get to a time station. The other two riders would get on the road. We would have to shower, shovel food into our mouths, and then quickly try to get to sleep before the other two riders were done. And we never got more than maybe an hour and 45 minutes of sleep at the most, before we had to wake up and do it again. Around the clock, day after day after day, for six days. It was an unbelievable physical feat for all of us.

Don Smith (racer, living with HIV since 1986): To build on that, Sandra said something to me one day, which really struck home: No one really had a holistic view of what was going on -- because of what Cisco just described. Each person, whether crew or racer, was out there performing their job, doing it on their own, almost. No one actually saw what was happening before or after you had performed your task. So it's very difficult to have that holistic view of the entire event.

Francisco Liuzzi: We as riders were all just going so hard, full out. But it's not like the crew had an easy time, either. I'd get back in the van after Jim and I had done a shift and these guys had been up for, like, three days in a row. It was just as much a physical endeavor for the crew members as it was for the riders. It was a high stress, hard environment, for six consecutive days.

Jim Williams (racer, living with HIV since 2006): It was probably harder for the crew than it was for the racers. Like Cisco said: We were able to sit down and try to rest every 15 or 20 minutes, and then try to get some sleep in every three or four hours. But the crew literally had shifts of six to 12 hours. Some of these guys went 24, 36 hours without sleep, driving an RV, or driving a minivan, and getting our bikes ready. All we had to do was to get out of the van and get on our bikes. All we had to do was ride, eat and sleep. That's all we were responsible for. The crew did everything else for us. It was unbelievable.

And not just the three racers are HIV positive; many of our crew members are HIV positive, as well.

Sandra Smith (crew chief): I remember going into this race thinking it was going to be so tediously slow and boring, because we're going 20 miles an hour. I thought, How am I going to endure such a slow-paced event for six days?

It took very few hours to realize that we were going to be on a chaotic pace for the whole time. And the crew really responded well. We had to make adjustments along the way. But trying to make sure we had everything covered, in terms of who's driving, who's navigating, who's sleeping -- and when I say sleeping, I use that word lightly, because none of us slept a lot. But you just kind of learned to find a corner and prop yourself in it and get a little bit of sleep.

We just moved so quickly and, like Cisco said, the racers were always doing something. Even when they were sleeping I don't think they had much peace, if you can imagine sleeping in the back of a hot, bouncing RV. But it was just this constant movement, constant motion, constant transitions between crew members, racers, race teams, vehicles.

And then some of the obstacles that we had thrown at us? I remember at one point thinking, God is up there saying, "OK, take that. You gonna keep racing now?" It was just one crazy event after another some days. We just had to figure out: How are we going to deal with this while keeping the racers on the road and everyone moving east, at a comfortable speed?

Martin Berveling (crew member, living with HIV since 1980): Not knowing what it entailed to be a crew member was a Godsend for me, as it would have worried me beforehand. I think the way I personally handled my physical meltdown -- caused by the lack of sleep, stress and shock of the first two or three days of racing -- was a watershed moment for me, in that I feel I just got on with it and moved on. It made me aware that I too can do really tough things and get through them well.

Patrick Burns (crew member and team filmmaker): I think one of the most gratifying moments for me was on the second day, when problems were arising and the crew was having to deal with these challenges that kept coming up -- to hear them start to recite RAAM rules and all the things we had practiced, and the scenario planning, and seeing them take that action. Especially Lorraine Williams, Jim's sister. I will never forget, on Day 2, when we lost Steven going out of Jerome, and she just sprang into action. It wasn't pretty, but she was citing RAAM rules and what we had to do in order to find him. It was fantastic. I loved it. I just sat in the back of the van and watched the interaction and said, "This is amazing."

Francisco Liuzzi: That was one of the aspects of the race that was so cool: Despite the fact that you had to get out there and ride as fast as you could, you had this map that you had to follow. There was no plugging things into your GPS and letting the computer tell you, because you couldn't make any different turns. You had to stay on this one route. So you had the driver, and then you had a navigator with an old-school map, making sure you were on the right path. And that was just as important as the actual riding. It added this whole other element to the race.

Sandra Smith: With all these rules and requirements about staying on the route, what happens when you get lost, how you recover, we made it through that whole six days, six hours and however many minutes with no penalties and no violations -- because everyone took that horrible rule book seriously. I think we had a few times that we might have bent the rules a little bit, sure; but for a totally rookie team of racers and a totally rookie team of crew members, I thought that was pretty amazing.

Steven Berveling (racer, living with HIV since 1992): I agree with all that. I would like to add that, apart from it going for six days and six hours, it went for six days and nights and six hours.

Francisco Liuzzi: Oh, man.

Jim Williams: The nights were the worst.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
Taking on the Race Across America: Talking With Team4HIVHope 2011, Part One
More Personal Accounts of Bike Rides to Raise Funds for HIV/AIDS

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