The last time Lap Lai went out for a bike ride, he took a 228-mile jaunt from his home in Vancouver, Wash. to Seaside and back. That kind of distance might sound astronomical to most mere mortals, but to the 55 year-old mechanical draftsman, it was just another training ride designed to build stamina for the real challenge: Race Across Oregon.
Beyond a traditional race, Race Across Oregon, held July 24 and 25, is a 527-mile experiment in bicycling endurance. Participants start and finish in Hood River, climbing over 40,000 feet in elevation in under 48 hours.
They pass checkpoints without stopping, eat on their bikes and rarely sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time.
This will be Lai's fourth year participating in the event, and his first year as a solo cyclist—he previously raced as part of a four-person team and in a tandem relay. I spoke to him about his upcoming solo debut in the Race Across Oregon at his office at Columbia Machine Inc. in Vancouver.
This is the first year you're racing all 527 miles solo?
Yeah, I'm going to do it solo this year because I just turned 55 in June and 2010 is the beginning of a new decade. It's one of my big goals—my other big goal is the Race Across America as part of a four-person team. In 2005, I did a Cascade 1200K, 750 miles. It was a four-day ride north of Washington. Unfortunately I didn't finish – I was 135 miles short. The temperature was so hot for a fall day, and I couldn't torture my body any more, so I thought, “listen to your body and save it for the next time.” After that, I started to study and learn the art of nutrition. Now I believe I can get by with the hot temperature, plus I'll have a sprayer every quarter mile or so, and I think it'll be a big help this year.
So you're more in it to finish than to win?
Yes, I'm trying to finish the race in the time we were shooting for--from 40-42 hours. I will do whatever it takes to cross the finish line. I signed up for the solo race category, but I have a whole team behind me -- Scott Martin, Tim Cannell, Jan Verrinder and Suzie Wardell – because it takes a team effort, even for a solo rider. The big factor of the race is it's a very challenging course – very hilly. I'm not too worried about the hills, but the heat and the headwinds – those are the two main factors on this course. This year they moved the race to the end of July, so it can be cooler or probably hotter. Based on my experiences from the past three races, the later you start the race, the hotter.
Do you have any time to sleep at all or do you just stay up?
I plan to take a nap for 30 minutes then get back on the saddle again. It can be more, depending on how I feel after 300 miles. I'm going to try to ride as much as I can without getting off the saddle or stopping, but I must have a least a 30 minute nap to keep my wheels straight. Before this race, I've done three or four 24-hour races – this year, on Memorial Day weekend, we had the 24-hour Lewis and Clark and I slept for 30-minutes and woke up feeling great. The weather was so lousy, so wet and cold. After you do the day loop of 145 miles, then you keep going over and over again on a 10-mile loop until your time runs out. There's one big hill--I just focused on that hill, and it seemed a little bit higher every time. For this race, my focus will be on one time station to the next. And when I get out to Highway 35 from Forest 44 road, I'll start thinking about the finish line and the 26-mile downhill to the finish line.
If you finish, what will you be proving to yourself?
It'll prove a lot. First, I'll know—where is my physical condition at the age of 55? Second, if you believe in yourself, you train properly, you prepare your body properly and you focus on what you're doing, you can do it. BUT, you must have a good support crew. That makes or breaks you – your support crew. They're the ones who feed you, who answer anything you ask for during the race.
How much and what do you eat?
I eat a lot, but just a little bit at a time. When I rode long-distance by myself, I usually have food in my pocket and they usually have timed stations. I eat a little bit every 15 minutes, so we try to keep 300-350 calories in every hour. I just don't want to be bloated ‘cause that's a bad thing. It'll make me feel really uncomfortable to climb the hill. And I drink a lot of water and liquid nutrition. For cyclists, carbohydrates are number one. I'll eat a bagel, a chicken salad sandwich, I like to try a variety of food during the race. A lot of fruits – orange, apple, pear, nectarine, grapes.
Do you do anything weird to stay alert?
My crew members might do something weird to keep me to stay alert, that's their job. My job is to keep my hands on the handlebars and my eyes on the road and concentrate on riding as fast as I can. But my number one rule is safety. If I have to slow down on a sharp curve, I will. I'd rather cross the finish line on two wheels than try to rush and not be able to finish it.
What do you think about all day?
I have a lot of things to think about all day based on my past experiences on long rides. First, I try to keep my mind fresh and enjoy the scenery. I think about the finish line. I think about climbing each hill, the next hill. The good thing about the RAO is they have timed stations. So after each station, I'm not thinking about the finish line, I'm thinking about the next station. And I know the route because it's my fourth time. So I know where is the long climb, where is the short climb, where is the descent. I think about my daughters, about where is the finish line and the scenery. I just ride.
Do you start to hallucinate when you're really tired?
No, I stay very focused because I have a very good crew. Scott and team, they're with me in the previous three races. And Jen, she crewed for the Race Across America one time—actually, she was one of the four women racers in 2005. So I'm very lucky—I have a very good crew to support me, and the rest is my job. They keep mentioning to me I need to stay upright and keep moving forward and anything I need, they can help me with. We have a radio to communicate back and forth, but we only use it at night.
So what's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to you while you're racing?
Weather, either wet or hot, is always a big factor because you don't have anything to cover you. In 2005, I dropped out because the temperature was so hot and I had a blister on my bottom and I couldn't sit on my saddle. I climbed Ranier Pass without sitting down on the saddle, and when I got to the top, the support people were there and I told them I couldn't go on. The temperature was just too hot. Another time, a rattlesnake tried to strike at my wheels. I was focused on the road ahead and by the time I saw it, my wheel was already there. That was in 2007, and I rode by and it was really close.
What does it take to win something like this?
It takes a lot of courage, it takes a lot of training, it takes a lot of endurance, stamina. Actually, when you cross the finish line, you don't have a very big prize or anything – just a medal put around your neck. But the joy for me is just finishing the 536 miles, it's a very big accomplishment. It's more about the finishing than the winning. I just want to cross that finish line safe in the 48-hour time limit. That's the big prize for me.
So how will you celebrate?
The race starts and finishes in Hood River, so maybe I'll jump into the Columbia River!?! No, after the race we'll all get together for dinner and talk about it and share our experiences among the support crew.