IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL

IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL

Martin Gruebele has ridden thousands of miles to prepare for the Race Across America, the 3,000-mile bike race he'll begin in two weeks.

But the key to finishing the race is not just the training he's done or how strong his legs are. It is the careful planning of every detail surrounding the nearly 10 days it will take him to ride from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md.

"The planning is everything in these ultra long-distance races, so there is very little left to chance," Gruebele said. "Of course, I can't control the weather. But if things go fine, it's relatively predictable."Blog Photo

The 52-year-old Champaign man has ridden RAAM once before, in 2013 as part of a two-person team with Jay Yost of Mahomet. They intended the relay to be preparation for each of them to eventually ride RAAM solo. Last year Gruebele rode the Paris-Brest-Paris race, a 745-mile race across France, along with Yost and another rider.

Gruebele rode more than 13,000 miles last year, and he'd ridden about 2,000 miles per month for the past six months or so, preparing for this race. On weeknights, he'll ride 50 or 100 miles after work. This gives him practice riding at night, as he'll ride through the night during the race.

On weekends, Gruebele usually rides 200 miles on Saturday and 100 miles on Sunday. For the 200-mile ride, he often rents a car and drives to Davenport or Eldridge, Iowa, South Bend, Ind., or Carbondale. He turns in the rental car, then rides his bike back to Champaign.

During his months of training, he's tested the food he'll eat during the race. In each six- to seven-hour shift for his crew members, they'll provide him with several gels and energy bars, five to six bottles of sports drink, and a solid meal, such as a chicken sandwich — all of which he'll eat on the bike.

Gruebele ordered seven different pairs of bike shorts and rode in each for hundreds of miles to see how they felt, then narrowed them down to the three pairs that felt the best. He'll use those during the race.Blog Photo

He also tested several pairs of shoes.

He'll have four bikes for the race, including a very lightweight bike for climbing mountains. For most of the race, he'll ride a Dimond bicycle that is designed to be extremely aerodynamic.

Gruebele will ride 20 mph during the flat sections of the race, but taking into account the mountains he'll climb, wind and other weather factors, slowing down to eat and making rest stops, his average speed on the bike will be around 16 mph, he predicts. He'll ride about 300 miles per day.

"The calculations are pretty much I'm doing the maximum of what I can do over that time and push myself," he said.

He plans to ride for 19 hours at a time, then sleep for four hours. He'll sleep in the afternoons to avoid the heat, and then ride from early evening until noon of the next day.

Gruebele has a timetable showing each time station where he must check in and when he expects to get there. He also has a schedule showing what he'll be doing at each hour of the day, as well as what his crew members will be doing.

Gruebele will have a crew of six people divided into three teams of two to help him during the race. They'll take turns following him in a car and providing food, drinks and fresh clothing to him. Each group of two will spend about six to seven hours at a time providing support, before the next group takes over.Blog Photo

The maximum time for an official RAAM solo finish is 12 days. The winner usually finishes in about eight days, Gruebele said, and he predicts it will take him about 9 days and 22 hours to finish, giving him some time to spare before the cutoff time.

"The winner of this is on par with any Tour de France rider," Gruebele said. "It's a different skill set. The winner of this race rides for eight days and sleeps about an hour a day."

One of the main reasons cyclists drop out of the race is infections, Gruebele said. With their immune systems suppressed from days of racing and little sleep, they can suffer from pneumonia. Saddle sores that can get infected are also an issue.

Gruebele will change shorts three times a day to prevent the buildup of bacteria. He uses iodine to treat any cut or injury and to kill bacteria. He also uses mouthwash three times a day to prevent the canker sores he'll otherwise develop from the sugar in all the energy gels and sports drinks he consumes.

He puts Vaseline on his feet to reduce friction from this shoes, and he uses Breathe Right strips on his nose to keep his sunglasses from cutting into his nose. Shaving his body hair saves him two hours over the course of the race by cutting friction, he said.

Gruebele has a detailed list of the equipment and supplies the crew members will carry. Each of the three cars will have two black milk crates, one with food for the day and the other with clothing. There will also be two red milk crates that will be transferred each shift to the vehicle that will be following him. Those crates contain items that won't be used as frequently — tools, batteries, rain gear.

Gruebele has protocols for everything, such as changing the batteries in his GPS system at regular intervals. He and four of his six crew members did a practice race in March — 320 miles from Effingham to Oxford, Ohio, and back, to simulate one day of racing at RAAM. He rode 150 miles, took a sleep break, then rode again. The crew was able to practice having everything ready for him when it was needed.

The planning and logistics of race preparation are enjoyable to Gruebele. He is a University of Illinois chemistry and biophysics professor, and they appeal to the scientist in him.

"That's really the main difference between people who are successful and people who maybe can't finish at all. It's really the careful planning, and knowing yourself and not overdoing it," Gruebele said.

There are some things that are impossible to prepare for, though.

"The sleep deprivation and the demands (of the race) are so much more than anything you can train for, but you can figure out if you can tolerate it," Gruebele said.

At the 2013 RAAM relay, he and Yost rotated riding 12-hour shifts to enable them to get used to spending long hours on the bike for many days in a row. At last year's Paris-Brest-Paris race, Gruebele rode for 22 hours, then slept two hours, for the two-and-a-half days it took him to finish the race. Those races "gave me the confidence I could it," he said.

As for why he would want to, Gruebele said he likes the challenge riding a solo RAAM presents.

"If you're into ultra endurance sports and want something to see if you can really push yourself to the limit, this is one of those things," he said.

Riding long distances "is very introspective," he said. "I'm one of those people who don't mind having the phone off and it being quiet and being on my own for hours on end. If you have the kind of personality where you enjoy some time alone, ultra endurance sports are good."

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line.

On the web:

More information about the Race Across America can be found at raceacrossamerica.org.

Follow Martin Gruebele's progress in the race on his website, honeybadgerteam.com.

Photos: Top: Martin Gruebele takes a training ride on Saturday near Arthur as he prepares for the Race Across America, which begins June 14 in Oceanside, Calif. Middle: Gruebele rides near Bloomington, Ind., during a March trip that took him from Effingham to Oxford, Ohio. Bottom: During a training ride in March from Effingham to Oxford, Ohio, Martin Gruebele and one of his crew members, Julie Turner, check the software they used to plan their route. Photos provided by Martin Gruebele.

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