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RAAM: 3014 miles of memories
Posted by: Annie Emmerson
Posted on: Wednesday 9th July 2008


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Following on from her article, RAAMing their way into the record books, Josephine Perry, triathlete and freelance sports journalist, caught up with the Serpentine Golden Girls on return from their amazing, Race Across America adventure.


Race Across America (RAAM) 2008 took place in June. Among the finishers were four British women; the Serpentine Golden Girls. With an average age of 60 they are the oldest female team ever to complete the 3014 mile race. A race that is about twice the distance of the Tour de France, but must be completed in only eight days.

The numbers surrounding the Serpentine Golden Girls' RAAM race are remarkable:

  • Four women
  • Nine crew members – many of who had never met
  • Cycling an average of 15.28 average miles per hour
  • Finishing only 42 minutes behind the lead ladies four person team – who were significantly younger
  • 50 turns each member of the team took riding (they raced in the four person relay race)
  • Over 120 energy bars eaten
  • Nearly 300 High 5 energy gels consumed
  • Hundreds of litres of sports drink drunk
  • 3014 miles across America
  • 11,839 minutes from start to finish

These statistics highlight the enormity of just what the Serpentine Golden Girls achieved. The team, Margaret Sills, Eddie Brocklesby, Hilary Walker and Hilary Webber, all members of London's Serpentine club, worked in hour long relay slots to become the oldest women's team ever to complete RAAM. It took them eight days, five hours and 19 minutes.

While the numbers are impressive, it is actually the fact that the team are still friends and that some of them are even contemplating doing it again which is really outstanding. As is the inspiration they provoked along the way. One of their crew members, Malcolm Greenway admits: "I am an experienced bicycle rider but any one of these girls can outdo me by at least three times."

Motivational as they all are, mixing four riders, nine crew members and only a few small cars and RVs doesn't sound like a recipe for harmony. Sills admits this was one of the hardest elements. "If you fling four riders and nine crew together who didn't know each other well, add sleep deprivation and close proximity, there were bound to be some interesting dynamics." But these dynamics somehow worked and inspired some of the most impassioned comments about the race. Greenway says; "it was a new beginning a sort of compressed life, in ten days or so, going from nothing to friends, to common purpose and neat memories. A metaphor, a sunrise, and a new morning."

But the sunrises were not just metaphorical. They were very much physically evident as they were cycling from West to East non-stop. They saw every sunrise, but rarely the sunset as it always fell behind them.

It is the stunning scenery and landscapes which seem to dominate the Golden Girls' memories. They all loved the descents, especially when they were able to get up to speeds which left the support cars struggling. Brocklesby says "coming down from Rockies onto prairies is my favourite memory. You suddenly see the huge height and it is absolutely wonderful. I sobbed my way down that valley." Sills agrees. "I most enjoyed flying down the Rockies at over 40mph seeing dawn in Arizona amongst the Cacti."

The heights really struck Walker. Her favourite memory was "dawn breaking as we crawled up to our highest point in the Rockies at ten and half thousand feet and watching elk cross the road in the gloom in front of us." The scenery also sticks in Webber's memory. "The view for thousands of miles across the desert when we came over the mountains out of California was fantastic."

But the race wasn't all amazing views and beautiful scenery. It had some significant hardships. Friday the 13th was a particularly bad day. "The rear windscreen of the support car was smashed in the morning and was out of commission as race support," Walker explains. "Then the RV got a puncture and a number of the crew were decidedly flaky from inability to sleep and upset circadian rhythms. That was the only point where I wondered if the logistics would defeat us. We still had 2000 miles to go."

The struggle with tiredness seems to be a recurring theme. "I thought days of continuous riding would be a problem but that was the easy bit," says Webber. "It was tiredness from lack of sleep and being bottled up with other people (however nice) that was difficult. I didn't realise how tired I was, or presumably how ratty I was becoming." Greenway mirrors this. "There was the excitement of the start, followed by the change in all of our sleep schedules, and the grind of a 16 hour day, (really 20) and then an eight hour sleep time, (really three) which forged us into, a caricature of one of those dysfunctional families seen on reality TV shows." But the team overcame this. "After about day three we all fell in together, and worked to the common purpose, braving both each other, and the unforeseen events that life can give."

And however much preparation had been done there would always be something that was forgotten. While Brocklesby's preparation involved hundreds of hours on the bike perhaps she should have spent more time with her music collection. "I didn't get sufficiently organised with my iPod and only had two albums on it, one of which was Billy Joel. I only had about an hour and quarter worth of music so I had to listen to that continually for eight days. I was slowing down for Piano Man and speeding up for Rocket Man."

Following the stag party mantra of 'what happens on tour, stays on tour,' not all the team members are prepared to discuss the funniest moments. But a mention tofu or baby wipes will set off waves of giggles. And toilet humour also seems to have been very much in evidence with lights being flashed at some of the ladies trying to take clandestine toilet stops and encouragement taking the shape of mooning. Webber admits that was a bit far. "I nearly parked the bike there."

But what really comes over in talking to the team is the importance of the crew to the whole attempt. "Riding is only a small part of the arrival, Brocklesby says. "If the whole team and crew are not working together you won't make it. And many didn't." Greenway, agrees. "It was as if each of us was stripped down, and then we shone with the best that we had, in our personal way. It's as if we knew in ourselves, that we wanted to be our best."

Now the ladies are back home in the UK you'd imagine they would be taking it easy for a while but that doesn't seem to be on the cards. Webber is racing Ironman Switzerland on 13th July, Walker is off to the World Long Distance Duathlon Championships in August and Brocklesby has Monaco Half Ironman in September. Sills can't decide what to do next. She jokes that she may take up knitting but is also tempted by Hawaii qualification, a Marathon or a solo RAAM attempt.

With Sills it may well be all three. Joking aside though, until someone invents extreme knitting or ultra crosswords, it seems fair to presume these four ladies will be on the race circuit for a long time yet.

To read more about the golden girls or sponsor their charities go to: www.sggdoraam.org.uk/charities/


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