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It was a scene ripped from a Hollywood script — only this moment was very real.
As Leah Goldstein pedaled her bicycle into the outskirts of Annapolis, Maryland, having endured 11 days and 3,000 miles worth of baking temperatures, stabbing back pain, and dehydration, her body systems suddenly shut down, like lights flicking off one by one. The finish line of the Race Across America — the famed ultra-endurance bicycle race from the west coast to east — was within sight, yet Goldstein couldn’t pedal her bicycle one inch more.
Finally, after 267 hours of nearly continuous riding, Leah Goldstein had to stop.
“My heart rate went up to 200 [beats per minute] and I couldn’t move anymore. It was completely crazy,” Goldstein told VeloNews. “It was scary because I didn’t have control of my muscles. I couldn’t stand up. My arms were shaking uncontrollably. I was like ‘this is what death must feel like.'”
Goldstein sat down beneath a shade tree, and her Race Across America staffers began to hand her water bottles and pour liquids on her arms and legs to cool her off. The moment marked Goldstein’s first major setback of the 2021 RAAM, which will go down as one of the hottest and most grueling editions in the race’s history. Just three riders completed the solo category this year, with most succumbing to dehydration or heat stroke across the desert and Midwest.
More than a decade ago Goldstein, now 52, forged a reputation in the U.S. domestic pro road scene for her toughness and never-say-die attitude toward cycling — a trait that she traced back to her former career as a martial arts instructor in the Israel Defense Forces. In 2005 she endured a crash at the Cascade Bicycle Classic that nearly ended her life. And further crashes and comebacks persuaded her to write a 2016 autobiography simply titled Without Limits.
Staying true to her book’s title, Goldstein sat under the tree outside Annapolis for more than an hour. She couldn’t ride, so instead, she put on running shoes and grabbed her bicycle, and walked to the crest of a nearby hill, and then coasted to the finish line. She crossed the line in a state of exhaustion and elation with the knowledge that she had just made history.
Goldstein became the first woman to ever win the solo competition at Race Across America in the race’s 39th edition. She completed the journey in 11 days, 3 hours, and 3 minutes.
“I told my crew, ‘Can you imagine if I’m almost a kilometer from the finish and I didn’t finish? That would kill me more than having a heart attack on there on my bike,'” she said. “My skin was so burned through my jersey and my hands looked like sausages. Yeah, I looked like death.”
Innovation and guts
Solo RAAM is as much a test of mental and emotional strength as it is of physical might and pain tolerance. The race has been around since 1982, and over the years the solo competition has seen eras of dominance, much like the Tour de France. Riders like Lon Haldeman, Rob Kish, Jure Robič, and Christoph Strasser have helped push RAAM forward as multi-time champions. And over the decades the race has also attracted a smattering of female participants in the solo competition.
Goldstein was one of them, and she made her debut in RAAM in 2011. That year Goldstein made impressive early headway in the race, only to suffer one of the familiar if grisly afflictions that have come to define the race’s bizarre impact on the human body — Shermer’s Neck. The muscles in the neck fail from fatigue and are unable to keep the head elevated, forcing riders to don neck braces or ornate contraptions to keep their heads aloft.
“We came prepared for the issue this year,” Goldstein said. “I did a lot of specific training for it and I didn’t have an inkling of pain.”
For months Goldstein completed her training rides while wearing a weighted helmet — she affixed small weights to either side to tax the muscles in her neck. And then, just before the race started, she and her crew created an innovative harness system to take the weight off of her neck.
Goldstein shaved the back of her head from ear to ear, and then took the long hair on top of her head and braided into the strands of a cloth bandage. The strands secured themselves into the hair, creating a long weave. Goldstein then tied the back of the makeshift harness to her heart rate monitor strap, and the entire apparatus helped keep her head aloft.
“You look at photos of me from the start and you can see the French braids — it grips your hair and pulls your head back, and then there are the ties coming out of my helmet,” she said. “I never once took them out. It’s like someone pulling on your hair for 10 days straight.”
The final element of Goldstein’s preparation was likely the most important. When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the 2020 edition of the race, Goldstein saw the cancelation as an advantage — she had an extra year to prepare. In years past Goldstein had spent her training preparing for climbs. After suffering through brutal headwinds in 2019 Goldstein decided to focus her work on producing power on flat roads.
“This year I worked on power, on maintaining a higher average speed, and on my core,” she said. “It really helped. What made it even more hard [than in 2019] was that it was 115 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the desert but also through Ohio and Illinois. I had to ride through that for 10 hours a day. I was praying for snow. And I hate snow.”
Monitoring sleep and sun
Goldstein set off from Oceanside, California on June 15 and pedaled into the desert with a more conservative strategy than she had adopted in past years. In 2019 Goldstein and her crew opted to push long hours early in the race, limiting her sleep to just a few hours in the opening days. For 2021, however, she opted to sleep more in the early part of the race.
“The idea was to deprive me not at the beginning but at the end, so I did 48 hours of tempo, then 3 hours off for the first few days, and then 24 hours of tempo, then 90 minutes of sleep,” Goldstein said. “If there was the possibility of me winning, we could always cut that down.”
For 2021 12 riders embarked on the solo journey, and six-time champion and record holder Christoph Strasser was not in the field. In his place as the pre-race favorite was Mark Pattinson of the UK, himself a second-place finisher in the solo category from 2017. There was also Danish rider Henrik Dam Hansen, who took the early lead as the cyclists pedaled through 115-degree temperatures in Arizona.
But Dam Hansen’s early ambitions led to setbacks in Colorado, and Goldstein pushed into the lead through Colorado, and after the opening third the ride appeared to be a two-up battle between her and Pattinson as they drove further east. In 2019 riders were pummeled by hail and rainstorms as they headed across the midwest, but this year the racers kept battling temperatures above 100 degrees.
“Because of the high temperatures you can’t push yourself to where you want to — your core temperature gets too high and you start to slow down,” Goldstein said. “Once I hit Kansas and Illinois the temperatures shot back up to 42 degrees [108 degrees Fahrenheit]. I knew it would be tough but I didn’t expect it to last that long. You get the shivers and your body can shut down — it just kicks the crap out of you.”
Goldstein battled the heat with multiple weapons — her crew filled pantyhose with ice and draped them around her neck. They leapfrogged her in a car every three minutes and handed her bottles of ice water to dump on her head.
At the halfway mark Goldstein led Pattinson by less than two hours, and for the next two days they played cat-and-mouse, catching and passing each other on the road, with both taking shorter sleep breaks. Then, as the race hit the Appalachians, Goldstein’s crew got a call — Pattinson had pulled out of the race.
“I went down for 90 minutes and he never passed me so we knew something was up,” she said. “I had a big lead at that point over the next racer but I never wanted to claim victory. I said ‘I still have to stay focused because the last part is the toughest.’ No victory speech in my head. It’s not over until it’s over.”
Making a milestone
It’s been nearly a month since that scary scene outside Annapolis when Goldstein’s body shut down near the finish line. She said there are still vivid memories from the race that pop into her mind.
She remembers stopping extra time to have fluids put into her intravenously, and her body shaking uncontrollably from the heat. She remembers adjusting the display unit on her cycling computer because it displayed the outside temperature, and seeing the number day after day was too painful.
“You’re going through all kinds of emotions and you know that everyone else is going through it too,” Goldstein said. “Every day I’d tell myself that if I keep riding until after 7pm it will start to cool down, so keep going until then. You play lots of mind games out there.”
Goldstein didn’t set out to become the first woman to win RAAM’s solo category, she simply wanted to improve on her finishes from 2011 and 2019. She said the milestone began to set in as she pedaled through the last five or so miles, and she saw people cheering for her alongside the road. The race publicized her accomplishment on its social media pages, and in the days after her victory, Goldstein did interviews with scores of media, from the CBC to the Times of Israel.
Now, with the thrill of victory having sunk in, Goldstein said the pain of the race has melted away. What remains is a feeling of joy and pride.
“It’s just starting to sink in,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking about it [at the finish] I was just thinking that I’d just finished RAAM and I had quite a substantial lead, too. It’s the best feeling in the world.”