Maybe they’re tilting one last time against the immutable windmill of aging, these men in middle-to-senior citizen age.
Perhaps they’re delusional.
Just plain nuts comes to mind, too.
Beginning on June 17, four Palm Beach County men, ages 43 to 65, will embark on the 36th Race Across America, one of the world’s toughest bike endurance competitions, in which riders race almost 1,000 miles longer than the Tour de France and finish in less than half the time.
During the race, contestants cycle 3,089 miles from the Oceanside, California pier , north of San Diego, to Annapolis, Maryland, enduring the 115-degree Arizona desert, pumping their way up an 11,000-foot Colorado mountain pass, spending two days fighting the roller coaster of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, climbing a total of 175,000 vertical feet, as they roll swiftly across the American continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic, in nine days.
“We think we can do it in seven or seven-and-a-half days,” says Michael Falk, 55, of Palm Beach, on the phone from his home in Southhampton, New York.
He’s the organizer and financial backer of The Plantagenets, the team name Falk suggested after reading about the Medieval family who became Britain’s longest-enduring monarchy.
“And this race is all about endurance,” said Falk, a founder and managing partner of Comvest Partners, a Palm Beach investment firm.
While the team, with a combined age of 208, is unlikely to set speed records, they’re hoping to set a RAAM fundraising record for three area charities they’re supporting: The American Heart Association’s Teaching Gardens Program, Opportunity, Inc. and the Palm Beach Police Foundation, whose logos decorate the team’s white, blue and red uniforms.
Falk, a regular with his wife, Annie, on the Palm Beach charity circuit, expects to raise more than $300,000.
Unlike the riders in that storied French race, RAAM racers don’t stop at night. The team will push their $10,000 carbon racing bikes day and night in 10-hour relay teams, until they see the eastern ocean.
The four Plantagenet’s were competitive athletes in the past, but the comfortable softness of middle age was beginning to slow them down. They saw RAAM as a last chance at recapturing a glimpse of their younger selves.
“I was looking for a physical challenge that I probably wouldn’t be able to do much longer in my life, something that required a unique level of fitness and focus.” said Falk. “We’re all training at a level I didn’t think was physically possible.”
“Because I wanted to,” is Chris Huffman’s answer to why he’s putting himself through such an ordeal at age 65.
Lean to the point of, “please, take half my sandwich,” Huffman, a Juno Beach grandfather, is an ascetic 157-pound column of muscle who seeks challenges in order to beat the heck out of them.
When he started cycling 12 years ago, he weighed 215.
“I’ve always tried to exceed my self-imposed limits,” he says, leaning on his bike near the Flagler Drive seawall in downtown West Palm Beach. “This is a test, a physical, mental, logistical test.”
And Huffman, the service director at Braman Motorcars, is determined to get an “A.”
Chad Wilkinson, a former Marine from West Palm Beach, the baby of the group at 43, with young children at home, wasn’t at all sure he was up to the effort the race required. Or wanted to take the time away from his family that training would require.
“There’s no way I can do this,” the marathon runner and co-owner of a construction business told his wife, Lisa, after Falk proposed the once-in-a-lifetime idea.
“There’s no way you can’t do it,” she replied.
For months, the men have risen several mornings a week at 3:30 or 4 a.m. to ride 100 miles before work. They regularly ride five or six hours a day. Most have changed their diets to eliminate sugar and increase their protein and carbohydrates, as well as making a few other sacrifices.
“I haven’t had alcohol for six months and my name is O’Sullivan,” said Robert O’Sullivan, 45, an Irish-born father of four who said he wasn’t keen on the idea Falk, his business partner, first proposed. “I said, ‘This is truly the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard in my life.’”
Yet, there was O’Sullivan meeting a reporter and photographer in downtown West Palm Beach one weekday morning after cruising up A1A from Boca Raton on his bike. After, he planned to ride south to Fort Lauderdale and back, fortified by a stop at the group’s favorite bakery on Oakland Park Boulevard, for a 120-mile day.
When you burn through 2,500 calories a day, a pit stop for baked goods and good coffee becomes a guilt-free reward.
The team may require the contents of a couple of patisseries during the race in which they expect to cover 400 to 450 miles a day.
“At the end of a 100-mile day, you can’t even describe how exhausted you are,” said Falk. “You can’t even walk. It’s hard to imagine so much more than that for up to nine days.”
At least they’ll have daily massages to work out the muscle strain.
Falk is spending about $100,000 on the race, which includes an RV the team members who aren’t riding will use for eating, sleeping and rehabilitation from the team’s massage therapist.
The RV will be stocked with high protein, high carb power bars and packages of amino acid and sodium performance gels .
“And coffee, coffee, coffee,” said Wilkinson.
The 14-member crew includes a non-riding team captain, a nurse, two bike mechanics and six drivers to transport the equipment van which will follow the riders. The team will travel with four BMC and four Trek bikes together valued at about $80,000.
Falk has also hired a documentary film company to follow the team across the country.
Each two-member team will ride for 10 hours, switching riders as often as necessary, as often as every 20 minutes during the hardest climbs.
Previous riders in the 36-year-old endurance competition say their biggest problems have been irritation and stress resulting from sleep deprivation.
In at least that, Falk hopes the focused maturity of middle-age will be an advantage against the volatility of youth.
“Sometimes, you wonder, ‘Why am I putting myself through this agony and pain?,’ but we’ve learned you cannot have those negative thoughts. You have to knock them out and once you do, your physical ability is so much greater.”
Huffman said, “We’re going to prove that age is just a number.”
RACE ACROSS AMERICA
Known as one of the world’s toughest bike races, the Race Across America is a non-stop 9-day endurance competition from California to Maryland, beginning June 17. Four Palm Beach County men, ranging in age from 43 to 65, are taking part.
For live streaming coverage and daily results, go to the race website: raceacrossamerica.com.