There was an interesting profile in yesterday's Globe about a Canadian who will be competing (for a second time) in the grueling Race Across America cross-continental, solo, virtually sleepless bike marathon. The RAAM is an extraordinary event, one that makes the efforts of Tour de France cyclists (with their teams of domestiques and days off between stages) seem like a Sunday ride through the park, and was recently rated the second toughest race (after the Badwater Ultramarathon) by National Geographic Adventure magazine.
After months and even years of training, the riders undergo an intensely transformative experience, both physiologically (in multi-day competitions like this, the body shifts from burning carbohydrates to fat reserves) and psychologically (I once spoke to another Canadian who had completed the RAAM and he described the out-of-body visions that accompanied his final few days of cycling). It's a secular spiritual practice in many ways—a modern version of the ancient ascetics who subjected their bodies to the most exquisite pain in order to bring themselves, however briefly, closer to the ineffable.
While I've got no interest in ever riding the RAAM myself (seven days of the much more manageable TransRockies Challenge brought me close enough to my Maker, thank you very much!), I do find the dedication and efforts of the handful of women and men who race across North America every year truly inspiring. They really emphasize the power of two of the most efficiently designed machines to traverse our planet: the bicycle and the human body. When anybody suggests they can't possibly bike to work a couple days a week because it's too hard or takes too long, I just think: There are other people who cycle across the breadth of our continent in just over eight freaking days! Amazing.