Jim Parker's blog

RAAM 2013: Maria Parker’s amazing comeback victory

Submitted by Jim Parker on Thu, 27/06/2013 - 10:24

To give hope to victims of cancer, Maria proved that even against overwhelming odds, victory can be achieved.
In 32 years, Race Across America has never been won by someone coming so far from behind.

 
 Part 1:
Oceanside, California, June 11, 2013 at 12:33 PM local time:
Maria crossed the starting line, having just given a brief interview to the microphone-holding RAAM starter. He had pressed her for a time goal to finish the 3000-mile transcontinental bicycle race, but she told him she just wanted to finish, and that she was racing to raise money for brain cancer research.  Within a span of several minutes, all five female solo riders left the festive Oceanside pier and began the long journey. These were all incredibly tough and seasoned ultra-endurance athletes who had been preparing for months, if not years, to reach the distant goal of the pier at Annapolis, Maryland.
 
The race is divided into 55 sections ranging in length from about 35 to 90 miles, with a time station marking the end of each section. Maria set a cautious and moderate pace, as planned, for the first few time stations, which took her up a long climb, then down the famous “glass elevator” and then across 338 miles of brain-broiling desert. Every crew worked feverishly to keep their racer cool, dousing them with water or packing their jersey with ice to fight the road-level heat of 115F. Hot desert dust filtered through every porous fabric, and the racers’ lungs. Some wore masks, but Maria did not. The desert crossing took about 24 hours, with the ending marked by reaching the Congress, AZ time station and a small inflatable swimming pool that many racers, including Maria, took a dip in.
 
Next was a series of big climbs to Prescott and Flagstaff, but Maria had a problem. She had severe nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting and could not eat. Without the calories going in, she could not produce the energy to climb. She had planned to use a powdered supplement as her main calorie source, but she felt that her body was rejecting it. During one section of the climbing near Prescott, Maria fell over three times when she stopped and was too weak to unclip her shoes from the pedals.

Below: Dan, Genevieve, and Ted are very worried about Maria's ability to go on early in the race. Her GI system was not processing the supplements and she was calorie and fluid depleted.
Maria sick

Maria and the crew retreated to the home of Crew Chief Dan Fallon, a resident of Prescott, where Ted Barnett, a former professional bicycle racer, cooked up foods he knew worked under conditions like this. Rice and avocado helped get Maria back on the road and climbing strong. She had fallen behind all the women after the digestive issues and the long delay in Prescott, but had been gaining ground and passing some racers on her way to Tuba City, AZ. The wind was gusting to 40 mph, and the highway through the Navaho Nation was in very poor condition, yet bustling with high-speed traffic.  The wind was so strong it picked up not only sand, but small stones that pelted Maria as she flew down the broken asphalt.
 
That’s when disaster struck. She was 4 miles past the Tuba City time station, traveling on Hwy 160 when a woman, distracted by her cell phone, plowed into the rear of her follow vehicle in spite of the flashing amber lights and the fluorescent slow-moving-vehicle triangle on the rear of the van. Police estimate she hit at 65 mph, with the follow vehicle going about 15-20 mph. Maria heard a large explosion and then bits of metal, glass, and plastic raining down around her. The follow vehicle was a Dodge Caravan that had been significantly modified for the race. It had a full exterior “wrap”, custom front rack with LED lights and stereo PA system. On the rear was a heavy steel rack that could hold three bikes and was currently holding her two spare bikes. Inside were custom shelves holding clothing, equipment, food, and spare wheels. But most importantly, the Caravan held Maria’s youngest son, Will, and crew members Ted Barnett and Dan Fallon. Upon impact, the Caravan’s rear end was lifted several feet off the ground and the whole vehicle pushed forward about 30 feet. The rear half of the steel beam of the bike rack folded like a pretzel, while the front end of the beam ripped a large hole in the gas tank, immediately draining 12 gallons of gasoline onto the hot pavement. Ted’s left hand went through the air vent of the dashboard while Dan’s face was cut under his eye. But Ted and Dan were in the front. Will, riding in the third row, far in the back, was closest to the impact and received the most injuries. He was bleeding from multiple cuts on his arms, legs, and face from flying glass. He had a big goose egg on his scalp where his head hit something hard. He was dazed and spitting out bits of enamel and blood, but never lost consciousness. Fortunately he was sitting on the right side of the vehicle. The impact occurred on the left rear. The left rear of the vehicle was crushed. A helmet sitting to Will’s left was flattened like a pancake.
At this point of the story, I’ll switch to first-person. I was trying to sleep in a hotel in Tuba City when the call came in… there had been an accident 4 miles down the road and I needed to get there NOW. I was sharing a hotel room at the Moenkopi Legacy Inn with my two crewmates, Peter Sword and Tammy Funk. We threw all our stuff into our duffle bags and drove down the left side of the road past over a mile of motionless cars and trucks, until we reached the scene of the accident and a host of emergency vehicles.  I was directed to my son, Will, sitting behind the van. He was alert with rivulets of dried blood crisscrossing his arms and legs. I was more concerned with the lump on his head, just above the hairline. I am an MD, specializing in Radiology. We do CT scans of the head every day for injuries like this, but they are often unnecessary. After I assessed him, I felt the likelihood of a serious head injury was very small, and that the best option was for him to be observed overnight. The emergency personnel on the scene wanted to take him away to a distant hospital in the Navajo Nation. I thought it best to keep him with me in the local hotel and only take him to a hospital if I saw any worrisome signs of brain swelling or subdural bleeding.

Will at scene
 
Dan, our crew chief, assessed the overall situation with the destroyed vehicle and equipment, and the injuries of the crew. Over Maria’s strenuous objections, he declared her race over with the dreaded “DNF” designation (did not finish) and let RAAM HQ know that we were out of the race. At the time, I agreed. I could not see any way that we could proceed. This was a dangerous stretch of highway, which RAAM HQ was well aware of. They had taken the extraordinary step of designating this part of the course a mandatory “direct follow” zone. We were also facing hours of investigation into the accident, which had to be done by both the Navajo Police and the Arizona Highway Patrol. Not to mention, we had only one bike, no spare wheels, and our son, Will, with a potential head injury requiring overnight observation. The accident occurred just before 7:00 PM, local time. According to the official police report, the investigating officer left the scene at 10:35 PM. After the investigation, we retreated to the Moenkopi hotel. We still had our one room there, but every other hotel room in Tuba City was full. Maria and I stayed in the room with Will, while the rest of the crew drove an hour to a hotel in Flagstaff.  Spirits were down. To have come this far, seen Maria suffer through the desert and over mountains, only to have her race end at the hands of a careless motorist, disheartened everyone.
 
That night, we checked on Will frequently and by morning we knew he would be fine. He just had a scalp bruise and nothing more serious. We drove to Flagstaff to meet with our crew.
 
The buzz over the phones and internet was that we should continue the race in some fashion, simply to carry on the goal of raising money and awareness for brain cancer. The Flagstaff hotel let us use a conference room, and we had a long meeting where everyone voiced their feelings about continuing. The majority of the crew wanted to go on, unofficially. For some, the trauma of the crash, and the perceived risk of getting back on the course was too much. We lost three crew members, including our Chief, Dan Fallon, who concluded that putting Maria and crew back on the RAAM route was not worth the risk.
 
The decision that I and the majority, agreed upon was to drive Maria to Utah, well beyond that dangerous stretch of highway in Navajo country, and let her start there on our one remaining bicycle. Outside the hotel, one of our crew members was trying to be helpful and decided to move all remaining crew vehicles into the shade inside a nearby parking garage. With the sound of screeching metal, he suddenly became aware that the bike was on the roof of the Chevy Suburban and it did not fit under the entrance to the garage. The handlebar was destroyed and the rear wheel slightly bent. For a moment we thought the decision to continue was moot. But we had packed an extra handlebar, and Ted, our head mechanic, was able to get the bike in reasonable working condition in about an hour.
 
That evening, Ted and I drove Maria to a junkyard west of Tuba City, where the Dodge Caravan had been hauled. We picked through the wreckage and salvaged some clothing and equipment that we would need for the journey. The local men in the junkyard were speaking Navajo, which has a unique and spiritual quality that is hard to describe. When our work was finished, we began to leave the junkyard and head for Utah. That’s when the most crystallized, resonating moment of the entire RAAM experience occurred for me. Maria turned and said, "I really want you to let me start where I stopped yesterday."
This was a statement, not a question, and the tone was part plaintive little girl, and part gritty street fighter. Ted and I knew that she would never be satisfied unless we complied. Despite the hours of debate and compromise in the conference room earlier that day, we promptly agreed.  The next thought also occurred rapidly: such a start would put her back OFFICIALLY in the race if we had the approval of RAAM HQ. We appointed Ted the new Crew Chief, he phoned HQ, and five minutes later, Maria was back in the race, officially.  
 
When we put Maria out on the shoulder at the place that she had stopped, Hwy 160 was a different road than 24 hours earlier. Traffic was light. The wind had died down. Drivers were polite. Ted and I conjectured that the Navajo gods had been appeased by Maria passing their test of bravery. Her passage through Navajo land would now be safe and peaceful; and so it was.
 
Now the race was well into its fourth day, and Maria was dead last, hundreds of miles behind her competition. The Colorado Rockies were coming soon and an insidious enemy, asthma, was about to threaten Maria’s ability to breath.
 
{End part I} 

Jim Parker's blog
HubbsCruzbike's picture

Congratulations.  A great

Congratulations.  A great accomplishment for Maria, and great recognition for Cruzbike.

thebean's picture

Inspirational.  And pure

Inspirational.  And pure courage.  Maria, you are indeed a hero.  Can't wait to hear part II!!!

Maria Parker's picture

Thanks to all my Cruzbike

Thanks to all my Cruzbike "family" for your incredible support and these kind words. I'll be writing about my experience soon (still trying to catch up on sleep!)

Plazebo's picture

You know... I don't recall

You know... I don't recall ever having a personal hero that was female, until now.

Maria, you (and your team) rock my world!

Pete

SloJoeRecumbo's picture

Thank you Jim.  Great to get

Thank you Jim.  Great to get some more background to Maria's resolve to continue through adversity.

Looking forward to "the rest of the story" as Paul Harvy (prolly my generation) used to say on his radio show.

You and your family should be very proud of the part they played in Maria's success. 

 

Diesel's picture

Holy smokes...I want part two

Holy smokes...I want part two ASAP!!!!!!!!

Alan Pratt's picture

I am on the edge of my seat!

I am on the edge of my seat!  This is an incredible story, on the human level with Maria's extraordinary athleticism and will, and on the technical level, demonstrating the revolutionary nature and excellence of the Cruzbike design and execution.

KiwiGuy's picture

Jim, thank you for narrating

Jim, thank you for narrating the events from RAAM.

What Maria achieved at RAAM is breath-taking. The stuff of legends. The love and support she received from many people to enable that was clearly huge.

I have nothing but the greatest respect for Maria, you, your family, friends and many supporters. And of course for John's work in designing a bike that performs so well.

Kind regards...                             Blair
 

Geotak2527's picture

Thanks for the report.  Can't

Thanks for the report.  Can't wait the next edition.
 

1happyreader's picture

Thank you for letting us ride

Thank you for letting us ride along on your RAAM experiences.
 

Vicki Cheney's picture

Can't wait for parts 2 and

Can't wait for parts 2 and more!  

cplager's picture

Wow.

Wow.

yakmurph's picture

What a great insider's point

What a great insider's point of view, on one of the greatest cycling stories of our time!