Catholic Herald staff
Exhausted, battered and barely lucid, Rob White thought of Jesus as he pedaled.
“Whatever you can put yourself through isn’t anything,” the 46-year-old ultracyclist reflected. “Yeah, you just close your eyes and think of him – it just kept me going on.”
For White, parishioner at St. Joseph Parish, Rice Lake, finishing the coast-to-coast Race Across America (RAAM) was the hardest thing he’s ever done.
Ultracyclists regularly bike 100 miles and longer, but White didn’t just race to prove himself. The self-employed contractor and father of two was dedicating his pain, raising thousands of dollars for brain cancer research through 3000 Miles to a Cure.
Buoyed by daily Scripture readings, morning rosaries with his crew and the inspiration of saints – St. Francis of Assisi is a particular favorite – White raced through the pain to a ninth-place finish in the 2015 RAAM.
It wasn’t easy, but White ended up on a pilgrimage, of sorts.
“Suffering is redemptive,” he said.
Billed as the “world’s toughest bicycle race,” RAAM is a grueling 3,000-mile endurance test. Contestants ride hundreds of miles a day from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland, climbing 170,000 vertical feet – through two mountain ranges – on very little sleep.
White pedaled across 12 states, enduring rain, browbeating sun and two days of 119-degree heat, and finished the race in 10 days, 19 hours and 52 minutes.
He suffered severe saddle sores, a pulled quadriceps muscle, scrapes and bruises, exhaustion and a fractured collarbone.
He hardly recognizes himself in the finish line footage.
“Every day it got tougher and tougher,” White said. “I didn’t want to fail.”
White was already an ultracyclist, unintimidated by 400- and 500-mile races, when someone suggested he take on the ultimate challenge.
“It was just mentioned on a weekend 100-mile ride,” he explained. “One of the guys I was with, he said, ‘You should do RAAM’.”
The thought stuck in White’s mind.
“I was fascinated with the whole concept,” he said.
White bought “Bicycle Dreams,” a 2009 documentary about the 2005 RAAM. He estimates he may have watched it 50 times.
“It’s a real moving video documentary,” he added.
He wouldn’t say he was obsessed with the race, exactly.
“I would say ‘enthralled,’” he said.
In 2014, White placed third in his division in the Race Across the West, a shortened version of RAAM that ends in Durango, Colorado. His finish qualified him for the 2015 RAAM.
“So I did that, and it kind of just went from there,” he said.
Maria Parker, a fellow ultracyclist and founder of 3000 Miles to a Cure, approached White and asked him to represent the nonprofit. Every penny donated would go toward research for curing brain cancer, an aggressive and often deadly illness.
“It’s like a college football player being asked by the Packers to join their team,” he observed. “It’s almost imperative that you finish.”
The gift of strength
White had two very personal reasons for accepting Parker’s offer.
“My sister-in-law fought cancer for 14 years, and she was … the sweetest, most angelic person I may have met in my life so far,” he said.
Diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 27, she was given three years to live.
“She’d just had her son,” White added. “She fought and survived for 14 years. I truly … wanted to take that from her, and suffer for her, because she didn’t deserve that at all. There was nothing we could do for her but pray.”
She was 41 years old when she died.
White’s other inspiration, a friend’s son, was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 13. His story has a happier ending – he survived.
“With all of these things you can’t do, you start to think about what you can,” White explained.
Enduring pain to raise money for research was his way of contributing his own strength, fighting alongside friends and loved ones.
White’s road crew, which included other ultracyclists, as well as family and friends who joined them along the way, left Oceanside June 16.
He wanted God in their midst, wanted to make it a prayerful journey, but White didn’t know how to broach the topic.
But faith prevailed, and soon White learned they were not only Christians, but many of his fellow travelers were also Catholics.
Soon they were broadcasting the rosary over the loudspeaker at sunrise and sharing Scripture readings.
“It set the mood for the day that lingered … the whole day, it was good,” he added. “To find out the majority of them were Catholic in the first place – it was just cool.”
Having finished RAAM herself, Parker must have understood White’s struggle. As he was biking the Arizona desert, climbing its merciless mountains, she sang, “How Great Thou Art” in the dead of night.
“I wish it could have been videotaped,” he said, “because it was beautiful.”
Pedaling through nights and days, he focused on his mission.
“I was dedicating the pain – some say turning it over. Kind of dedicating it – because I think that’s what these cancer patients have to do,” he explained. “I had the choice to just stop or quit. You just kept going.”
In the end, his was a triumph of the spirit, White said. His body was dragging. He could not hold a conversation. But his will was strong.
“It was a matter of getting out of myself and staying focused on why I was doing it,” he said. “The last four days, that’s all I could think about. You’re really not that lucid.”
White fell off his bike during the journey. He fell asleep and swerved into traffic, broke an already fractured collarbone in one spill, and tore up legs and hands and forehead.
His pride suffered as well. In the intense desert heat, he developed saddle sores that burned through every layer of skin.
“It was just down to raw meat,” he said.
As much as White didn’t want to share his very personal injury, he needed the crew’s help, so he endured the embarrassment.
“It was all kind of tough,” he admitted.
Fortified by prayer, he pressed on. White, an avid outdoorsman, relates most to St. Francis.
“Every time I find a new book on St. Francis of Assisi, I always read it,” he said. “The association with animals got me interested when I was a kid.”
He also had the assurance of prayers from back home. Fr. Jim Powers, pastor of St. Joseph, blessed the bikes, the vehicle and the crew.
Two cyclists have died during RAAM, and White is currently praying for two friends who were seriously injured while cycling. He was not unaware of the risks inherent in biking on busy roads while half asleep.
“I think a lot of that helps, whether it’s wishful thinking or not,” White said. “I think it makes a difference, those wishes and blessings from people.”
White and his supporters were making a difference, too. By the time he crossed the finish line June 27, 3000 Miles to a Cure had raised nearly $30,000 from his efforts.
The race was over, and suddenly White was back in Wisconsin, plying his trade. He never stopped to catch up on lost sleep.
“I still haven’t caught up to this day,” he said.
One thing he’s learned about RAAM: he has no desire to do it again. White plans to continue racing and cycling, albeit in shorter stints.
“I’ll keep doing the regular races – the 400- or 500-miler. They’re fun, and you have it over in a day,” he said. “They’re easier to wrap your head around.”
He did, however, enjoy a sweet celebration by way of a second competition.
On Aug. 15, White, his crew chief and his crew navigator battled it out in a frozen custard-eating contest at Culver’s in Rice Lake. For a $50 donation, competitors could eat their fill for 15 minutes.
White downed 14 cones.
“I came in a close second,” he said. “I have never had that much sugar that quick. I was shaking when it was done.”