Across the Country in Seven Days

For 30 years Lon Haldeman has been cycling -- though not three-mile commutes to and from work, and not leisurely weekend/family trips along scenic bike paths. Haldeman has been cycling like Forrest Gump might cycle had he not been running. A trailblazer in the relatively new sport of ultra marathon cycling, Haldeman holds the double transcontinental record and the tandem transcontinental record and has twice won the Race Across America solo. He got off his bike between bike tours to speak with City Pages.

City Pages: How did you first get involved in bicycle ultra marathons?

Lon Haldeman: I’m 49 years old now and I’ve been doing what I consider long rides ever since I was ten years old. But the definition of a long ride is usually something that you haven’t done before. So when I was ten years old riding five miles to a distant town or a distant water tower -- that was considered a long ride. For me it was a very gradual build up from a ten-year-old to finally being in high school and doing some hundred mile rides. And then eventually doing two and three and four hundred mile rides. I think I was twenty years old when I started in Lake Superior up in the Red Cliff, which is up in the Apostle Islands area, and I raced down to the Illinois border, which is 407 miles in 23 hours. When you start doing rides of over four hundred miles -- that probably fits the definition of long rides. I started doing that when I was twenty years old.

CP: Why did you start doing bicycle ultra marathons?

LH: I got into the sport as a tourist, more or less. You know, doing bike touring, loaded touring, and going to ice cream shops -- just riding and exploring and things. Eventually I liked to just test myself and go a little bit further, a little bit longer, more difficult or whatever. I just liked that challenge of going to new places. At that time there really weren’t that many events. It wasn’t like it is today when you can go out and do a two hundred mile race almost any weekend around the country somewhere -- the sport really didn’t even exist at that time. So a lot of it was just my own fun and satisfaction of going out and doing things like that.

CP: Can you give us a brief description of how the Race Across America works?

LH: The Race Across America is a non-stop race across the United States. There have been various routes over the past 25 years. The clock never stops and you just get across the country as fast as you can. Whatever time you spend eating, sleeping, whatever is still on the clock. My fastest time across the country was seven days fourteen hours.

CP: Did you get to see much?

LH: Yes and no. I can remember that route in minute detail. I know pretty much everything on it. You get in a zone. It’s not a zone like you’re a zombie. It’s more like you’re in a zone where you’re super-sensitive to everything going on around you so you take in a lot more. When I look back on events that I’ve done the best in I was probably in that super-sensitive zone and I was able to remember a lot. Right now I could look at a snap shot of me riding and I could look the white line and the pavement in the picture and what was on the side of the road and I could pretty much tell within ten miles where that picture was taken.

CP: What was one of the highlights from that ride?

LH: There’s just so much to see. There’s the desert southwest, the Navajo Indian reservations, Gallup New Mexico, and the sights and sounds. We had great police escorts across Wichita and Indianapolis and, you know, there was a lot of festivity-type of fun stuff going on too.

CP: What has been your greatest personal accomplishment as an ultra marathoner?

LH: There’s a couple parts to that. There’s the individual accomplishment of a good ride. But then there’s also the satisfaction that it’s actually developed into a sport. Back when I started, there was no sport. I was one of the pioneers that started to set precedent for the sport. And from an equipment standpoint, a lot of the things that we developed were prototypes at the time and then it had the trickle down effect. It was common in bike shops and stuff five years later. One personal thing was to set the seven day fourteen hour cross-country record. I set that in 1987 and it still stands. The record with my wife, Susan, on a tandem was nine days twenty hours and that was set in 1986 and that still stands. Those records as the years go on have stood the test of time because they’re really difficult to break. That’s probably one of the things I look at and think, yeah, I guess it was a tough thing to do.

CP: How does an athlete typically train for an event like the Race Across America?

LH: I would tend to think that you need to be well rounded in a bunch of different things. You need to have the speed -- the road racers’ type speed. It’s good to do short distance. But then you also need the long tourist-type miles where you’re just out there dealing with all types of weather and all types of road conditions. So I would do a little bit of both. I would do some racing, and then I would take off on some 2 or 3 hundred mile rides with the clothes on my back and lights on my bike and do some all day all night kind of rides. I think mentally that probably toughens you up a bit. When the Race Across America comes down to it, it’s all just problem solving. You’re going to the point of failure and then fixing that problem and then going until something else fails. And it might not be something physical on your body, it might be the tires on your van. It’s other stuff that ends up stopping riders, it’s not always just the rider failing, it’s something else because there’s so much that goes into it.

CP: What is or was your greatest challenge during a race?

LH: You’re dealing with the diet restrictions, trying to get in enough food and to keep going. That has evolved over the years. When we first started, it was anything you could eat. I had a reputation for just eating MacDonald’s or whatever I could get because I was just living off whatever I could find. But then it evolved into instant breakfasts and liquid diets, and now the stuff today is more and more scientific. So the diet part of it, if you can get that mastered, that’s worth a lot. I didn’t really get it that figured out until almost my tenth race. Now that the pioneering has been set though, somebody can come into it and at least they’re pointed in the right direction. Back in the old days we didn’t know what we were doing, it was all just trial and error.

CP: What do you think about when you’re on the last day of a long-distance race?

LH: Like I said about being in a zone -- if you’re really focused on what you’re doing, you’re going ten miles at a time. You know every ten miles, you know the terrain-- you’re doing ten mile races over and over and over again. Mentally that’s hard to do because you tend to start daydreaming and stuff. And other times when I’ve been on tandem rides and riding with other riders, we would make sure that we kept at a conversation pace. We would spend a fair amount of time talking just to make sure that was the intensity level that we stayed at. Although we were still watching the clock and watching our mile per hour to make sure we weren’t lackadaisical.

CP: How do drivers on the road during the Race Across America treat the cyclists?

LH: It varies. We’ve had lots of people come along and stop their car and take pictures and yell encouragement. Usually the drivers during the races are pretty good because the vans are all very well labeled with signage and it’s kind of a prestigious thing to have the race come through town and so the town comes out and everybody’s pretty nice. As a cyclist, they all have to obey the rules of the road and not go blowing through stop signs and traffic lights and things. You have to be somewhat of an ambassador of cycling when you’re out there. I think that helps.

CP: You hold a number of tandem records and have won several tandem races. How do you not strangle your partner when you have to spend so much concentrated, intimate time with them?

LH: I think you have to be on the same wavelength going into it. You do a lot of training together. You’ll train five thousand miles together even before the event begins, so you kind of talk through a lot of things. I’ve had different partners in races where we didn’t get along and it was a professional respect that we were on the bike. We did our best, but we didn’t spend a whole lot of time chit-chatting either. Not that I ever got to the point that I wanted to strangle somebody, but there are times when you don’t want to cause conflict and you just get the job done. The ideal situation is that you’re in a swimming relay race mentality where you don’t want to be the weak link on your team and you actually rise to the occasion and do better than you would’ve on a solo bike because you don’t want to fail. Looking back on tandem records that I’ve done well in, that was the mentality that I had.

CP: Are you still racing now?

LH: No. We have a touring business. We do coast to coast tours and we do a major event almost every month. So I’m on the road about two hundred days a year now, just to and from events and getting things set up for those. For example, we did a northern transcontinental. We went from Seattle to Williamsburg, Virginia. It was 26 days, a hundred and thirty five miles a day, and we had forty riders. I just got back from that. I was planning to go over to do an event in France next week, but I have too much going on. Then in September we do a tour of the Grand Canyon in the southwest, which is 14 days, fourteen hundred miles. And then I come back from that for a couple weeks and then I go down to Peru and we do trips in the jungle down there for three weeks.

Hear more about Lon Haldeman’s experiences, the history of ultra marathon cycling, and transcontinental touring at The Hub Co-op Saturday, August 25th from 6:30-8:00 pm.

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