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The world’s toughest race

Four Orange County businessmen. Nine days. Three thousand miles. This is the story of Team OC Quattro and how they conquered the Race Across America.

By Renne Gardner Published: January 18, 2007

QUICK FACTS

EVENT NAME: Race Across America (RAAM)

YEARS RUNNING: 2006 was the 25th year

TOTAL DISTANCE: 3,043 miles/4,897 kilometers

TOTAL CLIMBING: 108,600 feet/33,101 meters

STATES CROSSED: 15

TIMES: Fastest solo riders ever – 8 days, 9 hours; fastest team ever – five days, 8 hours

CATEGORIES: solo; tandem; two- and four-person team; and corporate team (eight-person). Within these categories are divisions for male, female, mixed and recumbent, as well as age sub-categories.

Doug Browne, 57-year-old sales executive and cycling enthusiast from Irvine, had a good head of steam on a steep downhill just past Four Corners in southwest Colorado. It wasn’t the best bicycling road as the shoulder was covered with deep ridge strips that help drivers know when they’ve veered from the middle of the road. But it was a welcome downhill after a tough climb in the race, a bike race across America, or RAAM for short. Browne was one-quarter of Team OC Quattro, a group of four Orange County professionals who, only nine months earlier, had decided to undertake what Outside Magazine has called the “world’s toughest race.”

As Browne approached a turn, his front wheel got caught in a ridge strip, causing his bike to shimmy uncontrollably. Despite attempts to stabilize his bike by drawing his knees inward, he crashed. When his teammates got to him, Browne’s face was covered with blood and his hands were mangled. X-rays revealed fractures to his nose, ribs and one of his fingers. He was also severely dehydrated.

Team OC Quattro had suddenly become Team OC Tres. His three teammates, Matt Vujovich, Eddie Bates and Bob Vezeau, would have to continue the race without him. But fortunately, according to Browne, they had all talked in advance about such a possibility. “If anything happened to any of us,” he explains, “the deal was that everyone else would forge onward.”

Expect the unexpected in RAAM. Try to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Ride your bike about 60 miles a week and at the end of a year you’ll have amassed a pretty respectable total. Your mileage would be the equivalent of riding from one coast of North America to the other - about 3,000 miles. Now, instead of taking a year to ride this distance, try doing it in 8 or 9 days. That’s 350 miles a day for 8 or 9 days straight. And we’re not talking about a flat course but a course that twists and climbs from coast to coast. Through the deserts of the southwest, up and over the Rocky Mountains, down into the sweltering plains of Kansas and Missouri and then, finally, along the winding back roads of Appalachia toward the Atlantic Ocean. From Oceanside to Atlantic City, N.J. in one fell swoop.

There are two divisions in RAAM: solo and team. The solo race has been called a contest of sleep deprivation. Riders typically get only 2-3 hours of sleep each night. They also endure hallucinations, saddle sores, dehydration and other physical ailments from vomiting to broken bones (think falling asleep on your bike).

The four-person team competition is not as debilitating as the solo event but still demands the utmost in physical and mental fitness. Because RAAM is a 24-hour-a-day nonstop race, team riders can be afflicted with injury and illness just like the solo riders. And there’s no stopping for a little bad weather. Neither heat, wind, rain nor cold will deter the RAAM rider from his appointed destination.

Take four goal-oriented, athletic-minded Orange County professionals, one inspired (or perhaps crazy) idea, the wherewithal to plan, organize and train, and you have Team OC Quattro. Last July they, along with 31 solo riders and 32 teams from 15 countries, raced in the 25th anniversary of the RAAM.

Team OC Quattro was the brainchild of 31-year-old Matt Vujovich of Aliso Viejo. Several years ago Vujovich, vice president of Snyder Langston, a Southern California-based real estate and construction services company, saw coverage of the race on TV. He was inspired, he says, by the prospect of the challenge and experience as well as an opportunity to raise money for a cause he cares deeply about. Many RAAM competitors use the race as a platform to raise money for their favorite charity. He started forming a team in September 2005.

Much of Vujovich’s inspiration for the RAAM came from his desire to pay tribute to his deceased brother-in-law, John, who suffered from bipolar disorder before taking his own life two years earlier. Team OC Quattro raised $50,000 for the John A. Pilafidis Memorial Fund, established to facilitate bipolar research and treatment. “I hope that my participation will help raise awareness of mental illness and the research that is being done to help those who suffer from its disease,” says Vujovich.

He first recruited a spin class friend, 49-year-old Bob Vezeau of Irvine. Vice president of finance for Unisource Worldwide, Bob, according to Vujovich, is the most competitive guy he’d ever met. An experienced road and mountain biker, Vezeau immediately agreed to join.

Doug Browne, a member of the Bicycle Club of Irvine, had been a friend of Vujovich’s deceased brother-in-law. So, according to Vujovich, Browne was a sure thing. “When the opportunity presented itself to do this to support a foundation that I believed in,” says Browne, “it felt great to be part of it.”

And 51-year-old Edward Bates of Anaheim was approached by Browne to join the team. Originally from Brooklyn, the manufacturing engineer is a lifelong body builder and had success in the cycling events at the 2005 World Senior Games in St. George, Utah. “It had always been my dream to drive a motorcycle across the United States,” he says. “So there was this opportunity for me to do it in even a more unbelievable fashion. It was a no-brainer for me.”

All four team members made sacrifices to train and raise money for the charity, carefully balancing professional careers and family life with the needed training. Fifteen to 20 hours per week on the bike, plus other cross training for six months leading up to the event, were minimum requirements. It meant no vacations, training six days per week and eating sensible meals every day. They rode their bicycles to and from work, too. Early morning spin classes, multiple weekday workouts and long rides and races - up to 100 miles - on weekends. The goal of finishing and the cause they were riding for helped to get them out the door.

“When I know it’s going to be hard, I have to get myself psyched up the night before,” Vezeau says about getting out the door at 4 a.m. to train, especially in the winter when it can be 30 degrees outside. “I start with an admonishment: ‘You’re not going to wimp out.’ You get everything organized. You get enough psychological momentum going that you couldn’t face yourself in the mirror if you don’t do it.”

They all cite Lance Armstrong as their greatest sporting inspiration. “He shows that true spirit, hard work and persistence brings victory against all odds,” explains Bates. “No matter the opponent.”

Team OC Quattro’s adventure started in Oceanside on June 13 of last year with a ceremonial start on the Oceanside Pier surrounded by family and friends. With iPods loaded with classic rock tunes and their hastily assembled support crew, Vujovich, Vezeau, Browne and Bates made their way through the Mojave Desert and into Arizona in under 11 hours. Favorite songs included “Start Me Up,” by the Rolling Stones, and John Denver’s “Country Roads” and “Rocky Mountain High.”

Every team needs a good crew to drive the support vehicles that carry all gear and provisions. For safety reasons, the support vehicle is required to follow immediately behind the rider from dusk until dawn. This safety procedure is optional during daylight hours, but most riders prefer the security and motivation it provides. The crew also helps with navigation and provides the rider with everything he needs, including food, water, massages and repair services.

In Arizona, the course wound through a raging forest fire. In Colorado, Browne crashed. Expect the unexpected, remember?

Near Flagstaff, Ariz., thick smoke loomed on the horizon. “It had started as a gray plume and gotten progressively blacker as we neared,” Vezeau, riding at the time, recalls. “Soon the flames were visible in the trees and brush ahead.” If the team could get past the fire, it could mean a time advantage over anyone behind them who would either have to wait, be detoured, or both. As he pedaled frantically, Vezeau felt the heat of flames from the fire raging on both sides of the highway. “It’s a good thing I removed my leg hairs because they surely would have burned off,” he says. “This was crazy and scary, but at the same time, fun.”

Something like a little forest fire and a race-ending injury to a teammate would be no deterrent to this group. Especially with someone like Vezeau on the team. Five months prior to the race, while doing a long mountain bike ride, Vezeau crashed at high speed on a downhill, landing on his head and shoulder. Emergency room X-rays revealed a broken shoulder blade. Over the course of the following week, MRI’s showed rotator cuff damage that would require surgery.

While some of his teammates thought that his RAAM race opportunity was over and that they’d have to start looking for a replacement, Vezeau continued training, even completing the 54-mile Vision Quest mountain bike race in our local Santa Ana Mountains. He had rotator cuff surgery four days after the Vision Quest. One week after surgery, he was riding his road bike. Two weeks later he was back lifting weights.

“If we ever complained about anything,” says Vujovich, “we had to deal with Bob.” After Browne’s crash, there was no complaining. There was just resolve and renewed will to finish.

It’s the old adage, says Vezeau, about what makes him tick: “Where there’s a will there’s a way.”

There were lots of times during both training and the race, he continues, when you ask yourself if it is worth it or not. “The adventure and risk-taking reinforces itself within the group,” he says. “It’s totally translatable into any endeavor in life. If I could pull some of my co-workers together to do something like this, it would be great team building.”

Vezeau uses visualization techniques to help accomplish his goals. “If I can visualize the pain, or the inconvenience, or some conflict that I expect is going to happen,” he says, “then I have some time to think about alternate strategies. I kind of anticipate it and play through all the possibilities. And then when I get to it, it’s like I’ve already been there.”

Browne’s crash was a test of the training the team had done and the will to finish what they had started; a test of their determination. Failure was never an option for Bates. “Failure was not even in my vocabulary,” he says. Now, however, three would have to do the work originally planned for four.

For whatever reason – the training, the visualization, the resolve – the climbs up and over the Rocky Mountains, the biggest climbs in the race, were not as forbidding as expected. “Hard to say whether it was adrenaline or what,” says Vezeau about 10,550 foot Wolf Creek Pass, “but that climb was much easier than anticipated.” He averaged 16 mph, climbing 740 feet in over 32 minutes, up and over the summit. “Watching Bob go over the top of Wolf Creek Pass near nightfall,” says Vujovich, “was the most beautiful sight of the race.”

Even though the Rockies were behind them, the road to Atlantic City didn’t get any easier. They now had to negotiate the high plains of Eastern Colorado. Although relatively flat, here the team endured thunderstorms, cross winds, head winds and false flats. False flats are optical illusions where you think you are riding on a flat road, but in fact are climbing. Vujovich went from pedaling in the 22-23 mph with a heart rate of 120, to 7 mph with a heart rate of 155.

Rider exchanges were unorganized. Switches were done at inappropriate places. Instead of letting the road dictate strategy, quite often it was left to the crew. So, the agreed upon switch in five miles might take place in the middle of a downhill or a climb where the rider would lose momentum or have to struggle uphill at the end of his leg.

Things began to gel in Kansas, however, when they started using a 3-way rotation. This rotation had riders switching vans after each pull and provided additional rest. Forty minutes of rest between 20-minute pulls allowed them to recover well and take harder pulls. This, coupled with flat terrain and some tail winds made for great speeds though the state.

Taking in lots of calories helped, too. All four riders started out with a liquid diet of Ensure and Accelerade, an energy and electrolyte drink. They eventually succumbed to the temptation of solid food. Matt’s mother-in-law kept the team well fed with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix, Cliff bars, Peanut M&Ms, chicken sandwiches and even McDonald’s hamburgers. “Stuff I wouldn’t normally eat,” says Vezeau. “We just gobbled them down.” It’s a good thing. Riding at such high levels of intensity, riders can consume up to 1,000 calories an hour.

The team began to catch up to some of the solo riders who had started their race two days earlier. They caught winner of the women’s solo race, Shanna Armstrong, in Missouri. They passed mountain bike champion Tinker Juarez in Indiana. Juarez finished third in a new division for RAAM last year called Enduro which, unlike the traditional solo category, has mandatory rest and sleep stops. The support vehicles of the solo riders became targets for the team.

Team Brazil also provided tremendous motivation. As Team OC Quattro neared Indianapolis, they were informed that the Brazilian team was ahead of them, even though no one had seen them pass. The Brazilian team continued to somehow leap frog ahead of them without being seen.

The team would need the additional motivation in West Virginia. Although the longest and highest climbs are in the Rockies, the hardest, steepest climbs are in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. “You couldn’t even start your bike straight,” recalls Bates.

 “You had to start at a 90-degree angle to the climb.” By that point everyone knew what to do and the teamwork components all came together with continual switching of riders.

“Chasing the Brazilians in West Virginia was a turning point,” says Vezeau. “I kind of run on adrenaline. They provided the adrenaline. They provided a lot more emotion than might have been there otherwise.”

The last 100 miles of the race was an all-out sprint for the team to catch the Brazilians. Rider exchanges among Vujovich, Vezeau and Bates were so frequent that every few hundred yards Team OC Quattro crew members had to jump out of the van, unload a bike, stabilize the rider, and then reload the bike of the “retiring” rider. Very chaotic and high-spirited, is how Vezeau describes the scene. “We were all going as hard as we could, acting very much as a team.”

While chasing the Brazilian team, they still had time to enjoy some beautiful sights in Pennsylvania. On the morning of the seventh day they rode through Gettysburg. “Going through Gettysburg at dawn was so beautiful,” recalls Vezeau. “You thought about the history, what had gone on around you.”

Bates agrees. “The sun was coming up. There was a glistening dew on the entire valley. It was easy to imagine the legendary battle fought on this site, and the tremendous loss of young American lives. All of us were filled with reverence.”

Approaching the casino-dominated skyline of Atlantic City during the last five miles of the race, teams were allowed to be on the course together. Team OC Quattro set up a three-rider pace line, changing the lead every few hundred yards. Entering the city, the racers crossed the “Monopoly” streets – Atlantic, Pacific – until they reached the Boardwalk, a few feet short of the Atlantic Ocean. Just after 5 p.m. eastern time on Wednesday, June 21, Team OC Quattro crossed the finish line in downtown Atlantic City, completing the RAAM in seven days, 23 hours and 51 minutes. They finish three minutes ahead of Team Brazil!

Matt reflects on the accomplishment. “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything,” he concludes, “especially if you have three great friends who want to do something cool like you.”

There’s no way he could have accomplished it without his teammates, he says. “All of us are not originally from Orange County. We’re now all good friends. We became a family. The greatest failure would have been if we didn’t become four of the greatest friends. If we had done better, and I didn’t talk to these guys after the race, it would not have been a success.”

Bob Vezeau sums up his experience. “The RAAM is both an epic personal challenge and a symbol of life’s journey,” he writes in response to a question posed by RAAM organizers. “If you set your sites upon a goal, plan the route to achieve that goal, anticipate the obstacles, and prepare mentally physically and spiritually for the struggle, you can prevail over almost any challenge. By leveraging one’s abilities as a part of a community or team, the combined efforts can greatly exceed the sum of the individual efforts. These are life lessons rolled into an athletic event.” OCM

RACE STATS

RAAM has been described by a former race director this way: “It’s more than just a long bike ride - it’s a test of one’s wits and fits, brains and strains, and crews and blues.”

Austrian adventurer Wolfgang Fasching has won the solo RAAM and climbed Mt. Everest. “Everest is more dangerous,” says Fasching, “but RAAM is much harder.”

2006 RAAM Results - Four Person Male Teams

1. Team Beaver Creek, Vail – 5 days 16:0

2. Athletes Racing for Charity Team – 6 days 13:06

3. Gearsandtears – 6 days 23:40

4. Team Heifer International – 7 days 04:09

5. Team care 4 kids (NICH) – 7 days 12:40

6. Dreams for Kids – 7 days 16:53

7. Team OC Quattro – 7 days 23:51

8. Vencendo Desafios Team Brazil – 7 days 23:54

9. 2CURE–HD – 8 days 01:21

10. Team Nor’easter – 8 days 05:59

11. Team Cyclonauts – 8 days 10:43

12. Swiss DAMOVO Team – DNF, Accident

Information for the 2007 RAAM as well as more information about the race: raceacrossamerica.org OCM