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The long road: Seana Hogan at the Race Across America (RAAM)

In-depth
9 Aug 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 89 of Cyclist magazine

Words Peter Stuart Photography Jaka Vinsek

Seana Hogan has won the Race Across America six times, and at the age of 59 she shows no sign of stopping.

‘Race Across America is really a metaphor for life,’ says Seana Hogan. ‘There’s something about it that lets you know you’re living. It makes you feel alive. You have to live in the moment and even enjoy the painful moments, as you can’t experience the good without the bad.’

She should know. Hogan won the Race Across America (RAAM) six times between 1992 and 1998. She then took a break before returning to the sport in 2013, and has since won two age group titles in the 50-59 category. She is a legend of the event.

The Californian’s fastest time over the 4,686km route (which varies slightly from year to year) is nine days, four hours and two minutes in 1995. That’s an average of 21.3kmh, inclusive of sleep and resting time.

In 2018, at the age of 58, she once again demonstrated her dominance, finishing two hours ahead of the runner-up in the 50-59 age group.

‘I don’t like to count it as a win,’ Hogan says. ‘It’s just an age group win and it takes away from the people who have overall wins, which are so much more than an age group win.’

It doesn’t take long to realise that Hogan is a woman who would never take an easy win over one that’s been hard earned. She is the type of rider who showcases the severity of RAAM and the mystic allure of ultra-endurance racing.

How the race works

The format of RAAM is fairly simple – it’s a race from the west coast of the USA to the east. Unlike some ultra-endurance events, the route is prescribed. Every road, every turning, is determined by the race director.

‘If you miss a turn you have to go back,’ says Hogan. ‘You can’t choose your own route. You have to cover every inch of the course for the RAAM. Every inch.’

The 2018 edition started in Oceanside, California, and worked its way through states such as Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois before ending in Annapolis in Maryland.

A support car follows each competitor, and during the night the rules stipulate that a vehicle must be behind each rider, shining its headlights over them. The support is intense work, and Hogan jokes that anyone arriving to join the support crew with a book and camera is usually in for a surprise.

It’s this vehicle support that makes RAAM different to other ultra-endurance events such as the Transcontinental or Tour Divide, where riders support themselves and often choose their own routes. It doesn’t make the challenge any easier, though.

‘At RAAM the clock starts at the start line and doesn’t finish until you get to the finish line,’ says Hogan. ‘Everything you do in between counts. So if you’re off your bike for five minutes trimming your toenails then that time counts against you.’

Hard yards

While Hogan has achieved a degree of fame for her exploits at RAAM, she says she was a late arrival to ultra-endurance cycling.

‘As a child I used to ride my bicycle to swimming practice, but that was it – the bike was just a form of transport. In college I didn’t exercise at all, and when I started working at IBM I used to ride with some colleagues after work. One guy was doing a double century – a 200-mile ride. I thought maybe I could try that. I liked it and didn’t find it too difficult.’

Hogan quickly found that she had a taste for ultra-endurance cycling, and was soon being encouraged into longer and tougher events.

‘A friend was riding a quadruple century at the LA Wheelmen Grand Tour. It was 1991 and I wanted to try the 300-mile option, but once I got to 300 miles I didn’t want to get in the van for six hours to the finish – I’d rather just ride. So I did the 400 miles, and everyone told me I should try to qualify for RAAM.’

It wasn’t all smooth sailing in that first year, though: ‘I did a quadruple century in June, and then I crashed at a race at the end of July.

‘I don’t really know what happened because I hit my head hard enough that I can’t remember it. I was with a friend and it was before cellphones. We were in the backside of Mount Hamilton in the wilderness. The nearest payphone was a 2,000-foot [600m] climb all the way to the top of the mountain. I couldn’t move at all. I had eight broken ribs, and there were wild pigs, which are big and aggressive, out there in the woods.

‘I said, “No, you can’t leave me with the pigs!” It was 2am, so we waited for someone to drive by. A guy in a pick-up came by and they tried to load me into the truck. With my broken ribs I just couldn’t move, so they had to fly in a helicopter. It was very scary.’

She healed incredibly quickly and raced the RAAM that same year, establishing a tough routine of non-stop long distances and little sleep that has proved equally successful in subsequent events. Although, looking back, Hogan admits that her tactics at first weren’t always effective.

‘Back in the 1990s I wouldn’t sleep on the first night,’ she says. ‘My goal was to win, and I wanted to beat all the men, but I wasn’t very smart about it. If I’d been a bit more conservative and smart about it I would have actually stood a better chance.’

Highs and lows

The lack of sleep required to get a good time is the toughest part of the race, she says. ‘There are a lot of dark moments. You think the crew is against you and they’re making you go around in circles because you haven’t slept.

‘I once went to sleep and woke up with no idea where I was. I needed to ride for hours before I remembered I was racing the RAAM. I once thought I was physically shackled to my bike.’

Amid those moments of confusion and exhaustion are times of true elation while riding through the grandeur of the US landscape.

‘There’s that romanticism of the history of the places you go through,’ Hogan says. ‘Sometimes you wonder what was it like to be the first person to come here. What was it like coming into Monument Valley and seeing these huge structures? You had to be in awe. I remember riding through there and feeling so small.’

Hogan admits that in the midst of competition, it’s often the low moments of rivals that provide the most bittersweet euphoria.

‘Everybody cries on this race,’ Hogan says. ‘The men, the women – everybody cries. I was racing against Rob Kish, who’s done the race about 20 times, and we were close to each other in Oklahoma.

‘I asked one of the team to drive up the road to tell me how far ahead he was. They came back and said, “He’s off his bike and he’s crying.” I remember shouting, “Yes!”’

Keep rollin’ on

When this magazine hits the shelves, Hogan will be on the road again, racing in the 2019 edition of RAAM. Does she have any sage advice for anyone thinking of signing up to the event themselves?

‘When it comes to nutrition, most of my meals are liquid,’ she says. ‘I try to have liquid protein and carbs on the bike. I know how many bottles I need each hour. I never drink water on its own, because that’s dangerous – there’s just not enough sodium, so you risk hyponatremia.

‘I tell the crew I would really like a McDonald’s hamburger about once or twice a day, just to chew on something. I always have the cheapest cheeseburger because they stick together best.’

As for choice of bike, Hogan says, ‘You don’t really gain much time on a time-trial bike because your need for comfort starts outweighing the aerodynamic advantages. If you’re not comfortable you’re not moving. You’re off the bike dealing with your discomforts. I have tri bars but they’re  just for comfort.’

And what about tackling extreme events as you get older? ‘This year I’m probably at about 80 per cent of what I used to be,’ Hogan says. ‘I have to be a little bit smarter if I want to make it to the end.

‘I think it’s good just for mental health to keep riding at any age, though. If I feel depressed I just get out there and ride. It just keeps me young! I honestly believe you have to live young to be young.’