3,000-mile ride to test all-teen cycling team

05/29/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:36 AM

When you enter the Race Across America, you sign up for one extremely arduous bike ride, with countless hills, long, lonely roads, heavy winds, hunger and sleep deprivation.

It's a race of big dreams, perseverance and life lessons – 3,000 miles long and 170,000 feet of climbing – so the training has to be commensurate with the challenges.

But how do you get nine local teenagers – the youngest relay team ever to participate in RAAM – ready for such an ordeal?

If you're Jared Ellison, a management consultant in his day job and the squad's volunteer coach, you arrange things like increasingly long rides, increasingly harder climbs and ever more intense interval work. You hone their diets, fine-tune their technique and have them log their miles online to help them see the big picture and take stock of their progress.

Then you throw in some shock therapy – like a recent slumber party that began innocently enough with pizza and video games late into the evening.

Only the coach knew better. At the family's Folsom home, he set his alarm for 3 a.m., when he would surprise the teens, including two of his four children, with the bad news: It's time to ride. Out into the cold and the darkness and onto your bikes. Ready or not.

"At 1 in the morning, they're playing Xbox and I'm thinking, 'Wow, this is going to hurt,' " the coach said with a smile.

"The challenges of this ride are so unique and it pushes everyone to the breaking point. When we put this team together, my goal was to try to throw every curveball I can throw at them for six months. I need to see how they're going to handle it."

This all-teenager team, called Believe and Achieve, is the dream of 14-year-old Connor Ellison – Jared's son. He made history two years ago when, as a member of an otherwise adult relay squad called Team Donate Life, he became the youngest participant to finish the race. What's more, he was suffering from a rare and debilitating liver disease.

Connor wanted to do the race this time with others his age. He recruited several friends and eventually assembled enough riders – some experienced, some new to serious cycling – to have a team.

Connor's sister, Savannah, a 16-year-old cheerleader and soccer player, joined her younger brother in the effort. Other team members are Adam Sevy, 17; Troy Knox, 16; Colin Cook, 16; Scot and Alex Benton, both 17; Michael Hahn, 13, and Jasper Hodgson, 14. Nine riders are training, while only eight will do the race, in the event of illness or injury in the days before the start June 16 in Oceanside near San Diego.

The team members have been riding more than 200 miles a week and have improved their fitness levels significantly since training began months ago.

While several of the teens already were slim, if not skinny, two have lost 30 pounds or more, including Sevy, a longtime family friend of the Ellisons.

"I just completely changed my eating habits," he said. After RAAM, Adam hopes to continue bike racing. He's even thinking about a pro career some day.

"After this, life is easy," said Connor's mom, Tiffany Ellison. "Regardless of whether they ride again, this will change their lives for the better."

"When they get older, they will have things burned into their soul from this experience," added Jared Ellison.

RAAM can be an overwhelming experience even for highly trained adult participants. That's especially true in the solo category, where riders get by on as little as 90 minutes of sleep each day as they ride for 10 days or more from the California coast to Annapolis, Md. Stories of riders hallucinating are not uncommon. Many riders either drop out or fail to make the 12-day limit to be considered an official finisher.

Solo racers will ride 250 to 350 miles a day, while the relay teams might do up to 500 miles daily. In 2011, there were 330 participants from 19 countries, along with more than 1,000 crew members.

In addition to the competition and the life lessons, many teams have a public service component. According to the RAAM website, participants raise more the $2 million each year for various charitable causes.

Team Donate Life has fielded several RAAM teams through the years, all with the goal of raising awareness about organ donation and transplantation. The teen team hopes to raise $150,000.

The issue is particularly close to Connor, whose liver condition, known as congenital hepatic fibrosis, has landed him in the hospital numerous times. The ailment can distort the flow of blood through the liver and is potentially life-threatening.

Bee readers may recall a story in 2010 that chronicled Connor's training for RAAM and recounted his health woes, including an episode in 2009 when a vein ruptured in his abdomen. His older brother noticed he was unconscious, blood spilling out of his mouth. A blood transfusion saved his life. If his liver problems continue, Connor could suffer liver failure – remedied only by a liver transplant.

In November, Connor spent 14 days in the hospital with liver complications. An infection ate away a dime-sized hole in part of his spine and he recovered in a body cast.

It would have been easy to excuse him for backing out of his newly formed RAAM team, but Connor never considered quitting. Riding at race speed with his friends, surviving on little sleep and pushing his body to the limit, this was his dream, his vision.

"I was so excited to do (the race), so there was no way I could quit," he said, noting that once he got back on his bike he was well behind in his training. "It's frustrating, but it gives me something to work for, which is nice."

Simply to compete in RAAM is a huge undertaking – not just the physical fitness but the logistics of the support crew, which is composed of parents.

Unlike the solo racers, who must complete the entire route on their own, teams are allowed to have one member ride while others rest. With this team, the plan is to have four racers ride in blocks of about six hours, with each person riding swiftly for only 15 to 20 minutes before getting back in the support vehicle and resting. This allows the pace to remain high, but the constant switching of riders makes logistics more complicated. While half the team goes through the riding rotation, the other half sleeps.

Jared Ellison said RAAM participants are known to struggle by the third day – that includes crew members. The riders have already faced adversity during training. On May 19, during a long group ride, the team suffered a major crash, even though the riders had slowed to just 10 mph when it happened. One rider's handlebars became entangled with another bike, sending several riders tumbling like dominoes. "Mikey" Hahn, the youngest rider at 13 and perhaps the team's best climber, suffered a badly broken arm. It is not known if he will be able to race.

The day after the crash, however, Hahn sent an email to the coach saying he was on his way to the grocery store. He was going to revamp his diet and eat foods that would help him heal quickly.

Jared Ellison said Hahn will train on a stationary bike until he is able to get back on the road bike.

"As I've told the kids and the parents from Day 1, no greatness ever comes without adversity," the coach said.

Scot Benton, 17, whose twin brother Alex is also on the team, has been training as an alternate and will fill in if Hahn is unable to ride.

There are so many unknowns in a race like this – from extremes in weather to fatigue or illness – that predicting an outcome is challenging. If all goes well, the team hopes to reach the finish line in Annapolis, Md., in about six days and 12 hours.

How tough are you?

Team Donate Life's third annual "Are You Tougher Than a Sixth Grader?" charity ride is this Saturday, with options of riding 100, 60 or 45 miles. The rides start and finish at the Folsom City Zoo park (behind the Folsom Library). Early registration (before Wednesday) is $55. The price the day of the event is $65. Proceeds support organ donation awareness and research. The longest ride starts at 7 a.m., followed by 8:30 a.m. (60 miles) and 9:30 a.m. (45 miles). For more information, contact Jared Ellison, (916) 716-4508 or jared@teamdonatelife.com. Register online at www.teamdonatelife.com


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