For Jay Yost, cycling in the Race Across America has been a lifelong dream.
For Martin Gruebele, it’s part of a more recent passion for endurance events.
The two recently finished cycling nearly 3,000 miles across the United States as a two-person team in the Race Across America. The race started in Oceanside, Calif., and finished in Annapolis, Md.
Yost and Gruebele rode it in 7 days, 4 hours and 4 minutes, finishing June 22 as the top U.S. team in their age category — two-person male teams under age 50. They claimed third place in their category, beaten by two Danish teams, one of which was a well-funded, national-level team.
Yost — funeral director at Owens Funeral Home in Champaign and Mahomet — is a longtime cyclist who rides endurance events, including the 500-mile Heart of the South race in Alabama and the Paris-Brest-Paris, a 750-mile ride through northwestern France. Completing the Race Across America (or RAAM) has been a dream of Yost since he was 12 years old and first heard of what was then called the Great American Bike Race.
He got serious about qualifying for RAAM in 2005, reading everything he could about the race. Solo RAAM riders must qualify at another race, which Yost did at the Heart of the South race. Then he began working on putting together a team for RAAM.
Gruebele — a University of Illinois chemistry and biophysics professor — had never exercised until 2004, when he started biking to get some aerobic conditioning to stay healthy and control his weight. Since then, he has run marathons, done several Ironman triathlons and twice ridden a 24-hour bike ride in Florida.
The two rode in 12-hour shifts for the first five days of the Race Across America, with Gruebele riding during the day and Yost through the night. Gruebele rode the daytime shifts because he handles the heat better than Yost. And Yost had more experience with nighttime riding.
“My specialty was to get us through the heat and up the mountain passes and not lose too much ground,” Gruebele said. “(Yost’s) job at night was to put the pedal to the metal.”
Yost emphasized that RAAM is a race, not a ride, and he and Gruebele entered with the intention of racing, not just finishing. The two rode 500 miles of the route, from Missouri to Indiana and back, in late March as a test. Gruebele had numerous spreadsheets with calculations based on his and Yost’s power on the bike, predicting exactly when they would reach each point along the course and when they would finish.
“I’m a scientist, right?” Gruebele said.
His prediction was 1 hour, 58 minutes off their actual finish time.
Gruebele noted the race had highs and lows, both in altitude and in the mental perspective of the riders. His low point came the day after he climbed the 10,000-foot Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado. The climb in the thin air took him longer than expected and sapped him of energy for the next day.
The high point: When he rode into Effingham and saw his graduate students, racing team partners and other friends gathered to greet him. Gruebele said he is not an emotional man, but he cried tears of joy as he left them to continue his ride.
Yost crashed in Indiana, bruising his hip and back and breaking the frame of his new bike (one of three he had with him on the race). But the hardest point for him was cycling in the Appalachian Mountains.
“The Appalachians are soul-crushing,” he said. “They are super-steep, long climbs. They are so steep, you wind around and wind around and wind around and wind around. And you feel like you should be there. It’s just awful.”
Another high point for Yost was what he described as a “magical” night in the mountains in Colorado. He was riding well and moved his team from a weak fifth place into second place in their category, passing some four-man teams along the way.
The logistics of the race were monotonous for the riders, though, who would ride their 12-hour shifts, get food and drink from crew members while on the bike, then sleep for a few hours before starting over again the next day.
In spite of the relentless pedaling, Gruebele said he was able to enjoy the scenery — saguaro cacti in Arizona, pine trees in Colorado, the rolling Pennsylvania hills dotted with Amish farms.
Not so for Yost, who did his riding at night. He focused on passing other teams, he said, and his memories of the experience are all of the race, not the countryside.
Their 12-hour schedules were necessary to give their small crews time to rest. They were each supported with a three-person team and a vehicle.
Another factor: Gruebele and Yost both want to do RAAM as solo riders eventually.
“If we want to get an idea what it is like doing this alone, we’re better off doing 12-hour shifts,” Gruebele said. “What is it like in the Arizona desert in 100-degree heat, riding for 12 hours?”
In the last two days of the race, though, they switched to shorter rides at faster speeds to try to hold onto their place and chase the teams in front of them.
Crucial to the race were the two crews that supported the riders. The race has a lot of very specific regulations, including where the support vehicles must be in relation to the riders, when the crew must call in to the various time stations they pass along the route — even what actions are prohibited when checking on the progress of other teams, in a rule book section entitled “spying.”
“The crew has to keep track of all this, give the rider directions, mix (energy) drinks, keep track of how much the rider has eaten,” Gruebele said. “It all has to be pretty carefully managed. It’s a complicated operation.”
After the two riders finished their race in Annapolis, they took the next week off from cycling. But they are both already looking forward to the next race.
This week is the start of Gruebele’s training for his next Ironman triathlon, in North Carolina in October. He plans to do a number of Ironman triathlons in the next year, then some long-distance cycling races. He’s hoping to ride the Race Across America as a solo rider in 2017.
“I feel much more confident about doing the solo event a few years down the road,” Gruebele said.
As pleased as Yost was to finish RAAM, he wasn’t completely satisfied. He said he’ll do the solo race in the next few years as well, and he feels ready.
“If you want to finish in under 10 days — and all the heavy hitters do — you have to average 300 miles per day for 10 days,” Yost said, noting he rode between 220 and 250 miles in his 12-hour shifts during the team effort.
“There was no point where I felt like my legs were failing me or I was mentally checked out,” he said. “The groundwork is there.”
On the web: The website chronicling Jay Yost's and Martin Gruebele's Race Across America is http://captainandthebadger.com/.
Photos: Top: Martin Gruebele, left, and Jay Yost ride in Maryland, about 10 miles from the finish line of the Race Across America. The last 15 miles were the only time they raced together. Bottom: Gruebele and Yost hoist their bicycles at the finish of the Race Across America in Annapolis, MD. They finished third in their category, riding the nearly 3,000-mile trip in seven days and four hours.
Photos provided by Martin Gruebele.