December 22, 2011
As an action-packed year for the HIV/AIDS community draws to a close, TheBody.com 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 TheBody.com 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.
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.
Steven Berveling: The whole race was just one continuous period of that high speed, high chaos, high energy, lots of adrenaline -- from both racers and crew -- to just keep going, day and night, 24 hours a day. And that was the very major significant thing that we all suddenly realized very quickly: This was effectively one day with six sunrises and six sunsets. And it didn't matter whether it was light or dark, or whether the moon shone, or whether the sun shone. The race just kept going, with all the energy that everybody has described.
Francisco Liuzzi: I don't know about the others, but I'd be doing all my shifts, all day long, dreading that fact that I knew I had that night shift coming.
It was so hard because you're lying in this bed in the back of an RV. You're basically on this slingshot, because you are 35 feet behind the driver. So you hit that bump, being ricocheted up. There are times when you're launched off of the mattress. You have maybe an hour and 45 minutes to sleep . . . maybe. You've just ridden three hours, as hard as you can. And you know that you're going to be woken up pretty soon and have to do it again.
And the night shift: You'd hear the people in the crew, saying, "The other two riders are 10 miles away." And you'd be woken up, like, Oh, crap. I've got to get my clothes on. I've got to get ready. It's the middle of the night and there's nothing you can do. You can't get out of it. You can't call in sick. That was the worst part for me, by far -- those night shifts.
Jim Williams: I actually didn't even know where we were most of the time. I took the race as just going from one time station to the next. All I really knew was how many miles I had to do. I didn't know whether the time station was in Arizona or Colorado. The only part of the country I knew we were in when we were in it was Kansas.
Carol Hyman (crew member, team publicist): Because it was so awful!
Steven Berveling: It was funny because a number of people ask me what I'd seen of the countryside. And my response is, "I saw a lot of asphalt with a white line."
And people said, "Well what did you see? The Rockies?"
And I'd say, "Well, you know, it was mountains and so forth." And one particular aspect was that towards the end of the race, when we went through Pennsylvania, the question was, "But you went through all the battlefield sites of the Civil War."
And I said, "Oh, did we?" I had absolutely no idea that we'd gone through those, and that there had been memorials along the side of the road, because we were so focused on racing as hard as we could down the road.
Patrick Burns: But there was also, beyond just the racing; at any given moment there seemed to be 20 other things going on that could potentially capture your attention and distract you -- whether it's an accident with one of the other teams, or one of our own; someone not quite sure where the time station is, or someone else making a wrong turn. There was always something else happening at the same time that you couldn't ever keep separate from the racers, because everyone was crammed together.
There were times where these guys not only had to worry about riding and their meds, and eating, as Cisco said, and sleeping, and all that stuff; but also, you know, is the van going to be where it's supposed to be? Is the RV at the time station or not? Are we ahead or behind these other teams? Are we on schedule? It was just a constant barrage of things that had to be monitored and dealt with and thought about. So that, mentally, is draining, as well.
Don Smith: I thought it Sandra got asked another question, she was just going to blow up.
Sandra Smith: I challenged myself at the beginning not to lose it, you know? I'm glad I did, because I could have easily lost it. There was so much going on at one time. There was nothing, nothing easy about this race.
Don had a bear run out in front of him one night while he was riding. We nearly took out a cow with the RV. We had two flat tires at one time. We had a toxic sewage incident.
Patrick Burns: Don't talk about that.
Sandra Smith: And Cisco had a crash. We had meltdowns. Everything that happened, we had to get around it. We had to get back to racing.
Sometimes we knew the RV wouldn't be at the next time station on time, because there was an issue of some sort. And it took us probably, I would say, I don't know; three, three and a half days, before I ever felt we had a reasonable rhythm.
Patrick Burns: Another thing to bear in mind is that almost no one, both team and crew, had spent any significant time with each other, beyond maybe one or two people in their immediate circle. It was 16 or 18 people of varying backgrounds and ideologies, thrown together under these circumstances, and all having to come together to work toward one goal, with people that they've only just met.
Martin Berveling: It would have been great to have recorded the inside of the RV with some hidden cameras. I think we all handled ourselves well; whilst there were disagreements, and minor meltdowns, we actually got through them all and managed to stay focused on the job and thus managed to succeed in our ultimate aim: to finish the race and to as well as we could. I think we managed that.
Olivia Ford: Going back to preparing for the race: What's a typical day in training as an ultra-endurance cyclist? How does your training change in anticipation of a race of this kind?
Jim Williams: I don't think there's such thing as a "typical day" in training, because each day is different. I think for a lot of us racers, we have to get a lot of base miles, or endurance miles, in. There's also a lot of intensity because, as Cisco said, when you're out there racing, you're racing as hard as you can for those 15 minutes. But you've got to do that over and over and over and over again.
We were covering about 500 miles a day as a team. And we broke that up between the four of us, but we were doing that as hard as we could. I think RAAM estimates that you've got to get in between 800 and 1,000 miles a month as your base, in order to prepare for this race. So you're either inside on your rollers for hours, or on your trainer for hours, or you're bundled up as best you can when it's 19 degrees and you're out there riding for hours and hours and hours, just to get the base in. I think I did 1,100 miles one month, in either January or February; but it was just getting a lot of miles under the belt to get ready for this.
Steven Berveling: For me, it was ensuring that we could do those short pulls throughout the race, and do lots and lots and lots of them -- which meant that, during the training program that I had done here in Sydney, we did lots and lots of time-trial intervals -- whether we did them early in the morning, at lunchtime, late in the afternoon, in the evening, we just kept on doing those.
I had to try to simulate some of the race -- over the Easter holiday period, for instance, I rode day and night -- a few hours on, a few hours off. But although I found that experience very, very useful, it was so unlike what the race was actually like; the training was laughable, in truth. But I'm glad that I did it nevertheless.
Jim Williams: In a way it was like blind ignorance. We really didn't know as racers what we were getting into. I think, had we really known what it was going to be like, maybe we would have thought twice about it. So that actually probably helped us a little bit.
Olivia Ford: What health considerations, if any, do HIV-positive racers have to take into account in training for and competing in this kind of race? What have your doctors said about your being involved in this race?
Steven Berveling: I believe that with the appropriate medications, we can do things like the Race Across America. We've just proven that. So therefore, the mere fact that a person is HIV positive does not stop them from doing a very, very tough endurance race, nor will it stop them from doing anything else that they want to do.
But -- and there is a but -- there are obviously some issues surrounding both having HIV and taking medications. From my perspective, one of the medications I use, which is Sustiva [efavirenz, Stocrin], created a significant central nervous system side effect on the first night, in which I could not distinguish between the taillights and the headlights of motor cars in front of me, or see where they were, relative to themselves, or relative to me.
That then meant that we had to accommodate and compromise how I took my medication, compared to how I did the racing. It did not stop any of my racing, or any of the pulls that I did; but we did have to take that into consideration.
Mainly what I'm saying there is that having HIV, just like having any other medical condition, might require some further management when doing some major thing -- like the Race Across America -- but nevertheless, it is definitely something that can be done.
Subsequent to the race, though, of course, one needs to ensure that one maintains one's health.
Don Smith: I want to add a bit from my experience post-RAAM, and following up with my medical team here. One thing that's become clearer that I learned is that I would definitely change the way I took my medication. It was intended to be taken once a day. But what both Steven and I found was that under intense exercise, the medications were absorbed into the system far too quickly, and then were eliminated from the body far too quickly. As a result, one; we experienced extreme side effects, but two; a therapeutic level of the drug was not maintained throughout the 24 hours.
If I was going to do RAAM again I would certainly divide my dosage into half so that I could more easily maintain that therapeutic level. That's something that my medical team has advised me to do.
Olivia Ford: Do you have any advice for other HIV-positive folks who might be interested in cycling?
Jim Williams: The important thing is to speak with your medical care providers if you've got any questions whatsoever -- just like you would if you were starting any exercise program, whether it be starting out at the gym, or starting swimming, or anything else; and just as you would if you had any other disease, say, diabetes or a heart condition. It's not limited to HIV.
A lot of towns, not just big cities, have local cycling clubs and racing clubs. You can look those up. If somebody's interested in starting to cycle, that's a great way to do it. Or go to a local bike store and ask the guys in the bike store about it. They know more than anybody about the racing scene.
Carol Hyman: And as far as not necessarily racing but just cycling, Positive Pedalers are starting chapters all over the country. And even in places where there aren't chapters, there are people. So I would go to their Website, PosPeds.org, and get in touch with those people. As Jim and Don said earlier, they're an incredibly open, warm, wonderful community, and are very supportive. They were very supportive of me when I was a beginning cyclist, helping me get stronger and get to be a better rider. They are a great resource.
Olivia Ford: In closing: How do you "come down" from an experience like this? Do you miss it, and is it challenging to return to a regular routine? Is it just a relief to get it over with? Or are you already planning for your next big event?
Jim Williams: Can we say all three? Yes; yes and yes?
When you do an AIDS ride like AIDS/LifeCycle, there's actually this syndrome participants call PARD: "Post-AIDS Ride Depression." Because for six days, you're in this really fabulous, caring community of people; and you're working toward the same cause. That's kind of what this race was. Regardless of the little meltdowns here and there, everybody was working really well together, and working toward a common goal. And it was a great experience for those six days. And all you did was just focus on cycling and getting from Oceanside to Annapolis.
But at the same time, when it was over, it was like, whew; it's over. And we've already started preparing for next year, as well. So, yes, yes, and yes -- for me, at least.
Sandra Smith: I remember being so thrilled that it was over and we could all go to bed in a real bed, and be clean when we got there. Then when I got home, I think it took me close to 10 days before I quit waking up in the middle of the night saying, "Why aren't we moving? Why aren't we moving?" I was clearly recovering from trauma!
And probably Day 2 or so of the race, I remember thinking, I want to go home, and I never want to see these people again in my life. It was so hard the first couple of days, getting everything feeling like it was all going right.
But then, when we finally settled in as a team and things started moving better, and everyone got over that first experience with exhaustion and being stinky and stressed out, and everything started working again -- then it really started to be more fun. And by the time we got to Annapolis, I just couldn't wait to do it again. It's like: OK, now we know how to do this. Let's go do it again. After I get some sleep, though.
Jim Williams: Day 2 was actually the worst day for me, for some reason. The second night was the hardest night for me. That was when the demons came out and I was on the bike at 3 o'clock in the morning, thinking, Why in the hell am I doing this? But that was the only time that I felt like that.
Don Smith: I have to say, after leaving the group, it was a really dramatic change. I left after we had this wonderful group brunch, where we made speeches. It was just a really warm environment. I'd also had a crew that took care of me for the past six and a half days; and then suddenly I was on my own in a van, driving across America. I had no idea where I was going. I had to fend for myself. I had to get my own gas, get my own food, navigate. I thought, I don't think I like this. I need help!
Olivia Ford: Everybody could use a Team4HIVHope-style crew following them and supporting them through life! Now, is there anything further you want to share with our readers?
Francisco Liuzzi: Here's one thing I thought was kind of funny, and interesting. Of everything about ths whole trip, the thing people ask me about the most is the food, and what you eat every day. On any given day, you could eat anything -- and I do mean anything: multiple cheeseburgers, Big Macs, Chicken McNuggets, multiple chocolate chip cookies, three or four Snickers bars, as much quinoa as you want, as much soda and juice and Gatorade as you want; you could throw in regular candy bars at any time. What else? It didn't matter.
Jim Williams: Filet O' Fish!
Francisco Liuzzi: McChicken, Filet O' Fish, whatever -- all day long -- and every time you looked in the mirror, you were skinnier. Every time. It was amazing.
Jim Williams: We couldn't get enough calories in us. We had to end up relying on the nutrition drink Ensure.
If the time station or exchange was at McDonald's, a crew member would go get me two Filet O' Fish sandwiches, and then I'd have two more.
Francisco Liuzzi: And wash them down with a milkshake.
Jim Williams: Yeah, exactly.
Francisco Liuzzi: I mean, it's the only time I've ever seen where you literally can eat whatever you want. At 8,000 calories a day, you'll lose weight; all you have to do is not sleep and ride a bike as hard as you can all day long for six consecutive days.
Jim Williams: And we didn't have to fix any of it ourselves. We had the crew. They would always say, "What do you want to eat? What do you want to eat? What can I get you? What can I get you?" It was wonderful.
Don Smith: They would come up with such wonderful things, like a Southwest casserole with beans and rice and chicken. It was just the most delicious thing, and they cooked it all up in an RV, which was phenomenal.
Olivia Ford: The crew should put out a cookbook, an RV cookbook, with high-calorie meals, for riding 3,000 miles across the U.S.
Don Smith: That's not a bad idea.
Jim Williams: A RAAM cookbook: That's a great idea.
Francisco Liuzzi: Foods that can be cooked on a stove that will bounce the stuff around as you're driving.
Jim Williams: And will eventually end up on the floor.
Olivia Ford: Well, everyone, it was such a pleasure listening to you. We really appreciate your taking the time to talk about your experiences!
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
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.
Olivia Ford is the community manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.