Book Review: Going the Distance with George Thomas

How a RAAM Rider Overcame Huge Obstacles

America has succeeded in exporting its entertainment culture all over the world, but hasn’t been nearly as successful with its home-grown sports. Basketball is popular in Italy, baseball in Japan, football in Canada, but overall, the rest of the world just isn’t interested in our favorite team games. Perhaps it’s their stop-and-go pattern, compared to the continuous motion of soccer, which limits their appeal.

Fortunately, there’s another uniquely American sport that completely eliminates all those annoying stoppages. It’s the Race Across America–the 3,000-mile race that never sleeps. Aside from prohibiting drafting, there are really no rules necessary: you get on your bike on the west coast and ride to the east coast……what could be simpler?

The RAAM forms the background to “Going the Distance,” a book about the life of marathon cyclist George Thomas, written by journalist Jeff Welsch. Both men live in Corvallis, where Jeff is the sports editor of the Corvallis Gazette-Times.

“In one way or another, I had been preparing for RAAM for more than a decade,” says Thomas about his 1995 solo ride. By preparation, he doesn’t really mean physical training, he’s talking more about his recovery from a car crash in his native San Antonio, Texas in 1985. A car ran off the road and hit him while he was standing in a front yard; the driver was never located. The impact threw Thomas across the hood, and over the vehicle, to land 60 yards away.

Aside from cracked ribs, it seemed as if his injuries were confined to his legs, which were severely battered. One might have been amputated, but instead he made an amazing recovery. Two months later he was riding a trainer, another two months and he entered a triathlon. The accident had made him a better athlete, he realized. Now he knew how to absorb pain! (That wasn’t even his first freak accident, in 1981, a deer leapt into his car through the passenger-side window and beat his chest with its hooves before emerging through the driver’s window!)

After graduating in communications, he visited Oregon for the first time in 1988. He was sufficiently impressed to return that winter as a ski instructor at Hoodoo Ski Bowl. Skiing quickly became the focus of his life; he never gave much thought to the occasional dizzy spells he experienced. He married a local woman and looked forward to an enviable life of summer cycling and winter skiing, until the spells began to increase on a honeymoon drive to Texas.

It was then that he began to realize that these were actually “seizures,” and that he was, in fact, an epileptic. His driver’s license was revoked, he lived in fear of the next attack, and his life started to fall apart. He began to experience debilitating side effects from his medication. Soon, he could barely walk. Finally, his doctors sent him to Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland where he was given a new epilepsy drug called Lamictal that was not yet approved by the FDA.

This was the miracle he needed, and in February 1990 he could report that he had been seizure-free for six months and get his license back. More than two years elapsed before he started cycling again, while working for his father in Texas. He soon regained his fitness and found that the further he went the more competitive he became. In 1993 and ’94, he organized four-man RAAM relay teams, but it was the solo race that was his real calling.

By 1995, his treatment was such a success story that he was sponsored by the drug company GlaxoSmithKline which even sent a camera crew along the whole route. (He will take three pills a day for the rest of his life.) That ride is the heart of this book, interspersed with brief flashbacks to his previous life that I’ve assembled for you here. RAAM is such an epic event that I will not attempt to condense the race for you, suffice to say that it’s “hours of monotony punctuated by fits of exhilaration,” with enough suffering to last a lifetime. Thomas was the first rookie to finish, in tenth place, behind two outstanding women, Sean Hogan and Muffy Ritz who had challenged the leaders all the way.

It wasn’t really over then, he admits. It took more than a month for his knees, feet, hands and neck to recover, not to mention his sleep patterns and emotional exhaustion. And how do you follow an achievement like that? Jim Bunn, the director of the camera crew, was able to convince Thomas that he had a future as a motivational speaker and spokesman for the two million people in the US with epilepsy. GlaxoSmithKline was happy to set up a media tour for him. On the bike, he won the Midnight Sun 600K in Alaska in 1997, then the 575-mile Bicycle Across Missouri. In 1998, he created the Race Across Oregon that has taken place every June.

Perhaps these experiences matured Thomas in some way, because he has never ridden another solo RAAM. Instead, he chose the more inter-personal challenge of riding a tandem with a female partner. He completed the 2000 race with Katie Lindquist of Colorado. That gave him the distinction of being the only person to do RAAM on a team, solo, and on a tandem.

But his new lifestyle had caused a rift in his marriage and he separated from his wife shortly after. A few months later at a cycling camp in Arizona, he met Terri Gooch, a New Yorker who had never raced a bike in her life. With his encouragement, she entered the 530-mile Race Across Oregon in 2001, and was the first Oregonian to finish. In 2002 they did the RAAM together on a Co-Motion tandem. Thomas says this, his fifth cross-country race, was as perfect as possible, even though they had 100,000 feet of climbing on the Portland-Pensacola route and had to fight the weather on the Great Plains. In 2004, they rode it again, this time as two-person relay and beat all but one of the all-male teams. This gives George the distinction of being the only person to do RAAM in every possible way: solo, tandem four-person team, and two-person team.

Fortunately, he doesn’t waste time trying to theorize why some people feel compelled to inflict RAAM on themselves. Anyway, these days plenty of Europeans also feel the same compulsion to face this all-American test! It’s worth noting that Thomas isn’t your usual ghost writer–he literally went the distance with Thomas by joining the support team for Thomas’ first RAAM on a tandem in 2000, and was also inspired to ride on a relay team in the Race Across Oregon.

Going the Distance by George Thomas and Jeff Welsch

Published by Sports Publishing Company, Champaign, Illinois. $24.95

www.raceacrossoregon.com or www.sportspublishingLLC.com

 

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