The Race Across America (RAAM) is a 3,000-mile coast-to-coast ultra-cycling race from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland. Solo racers are given 12 days to travel across 12 states, cycling 250-350 miles per day and climbing over 170,000 vertical feet through three major mountain ranges, across multiple deserts, and through unforgiving wind, rain, hail, and heat.
Despite the distance covered and the extreme weather to contend with, the biggest challenge isn’t the length or Mother Nature — it’s battling the need for sleep.
This is because RAAM is not raced in stages, meaning the clock doesn't stop until cyclists complete the full course. This contrasts with European Grand Tours like the Tour de France, which are multi-stage races, allowing competitors scheduled rest. For scale, RAAM is 30% longer than the famous French race, racers have about half the time to finish, and there is zero scheduled break time. From start to finish, every second counts.
Leaders average around an hour of sleep a day and get about a night’s worth of rest over the entire course of the race. Sleeping in space might be difficult for astronauts, but for RAAM cyclists, the challenges are just as astronomical.
How much sleep do cyclists get during RAAM?
2021’s top victor was Leah Goldstein, who bested everyone to finish the race in 11 days, three hours and three minutes. “Sleep is absolutely the hardest part,” acknowledges Goldstein, a world-champion kickboxer, martial artist, former member of the Israeli military, and three-time RAAM competitor. A decade after her win in the solo women’s division in 2011, Goldstein was the fastest 2021 solo racer overall, enduring temperatures that topped 120 degrees Fahrenheit to become the first woman to take the title. Due to the heat, only three other solo racers completed the race in 2021.
Goldstein’s sleep over the entire race? “Not very much,” she laughs. “About 15 hours in total.”
Those 15 hours were her only rest during about 250 hours of non-stop pedaling. To put that in perspective, it’s the equivalent of six 40-hour workweeks. What many of us work in a month and a half, Goldstein pedaled in 11 days during RAAM.
Christoph Strasser is a nine-time RAAM competitor, six-time winner, and holder of multiple world records. (Strasser did not compete in 2021’s race). In 2014, he logged his fastest time, setting a RAAM record by finishing in seven days, 15 hours and 56 minutes. In 2019, his most recent RAAM, he won with a finishing time of just over eight days and six hours. Heat management and sleep deprivation are the toughest aspects of RAAM, says Strasser. “The tough thing about the day is that it’s hot, and the tough thing about the night is that you’re tired.”
To finish with the kind of times that Strasser posted, his total amount of sleep for the entire race fell somewhere between six and nine hours. In his fastest year, he slept just under six hours. Six hours of sleep over eight days. And that’s stacked up against about 190 hours of constant pedaling.
When do ultra-cyclists sleep on the Race Across America?
Goldstein uses a strategy that many RAAM racers go for: No sleep for the first two days. “I always go the first 40 hours without sleep,” she explains, “So, I’ll go through the first night and then as long as I can into the second night.” In 2021, Goldstein was able to race for 45 hours before pausing for her first rest. That rest break included only three hours of sleep.
“I think for me, at that point it’s more fatigue than anything else because the body just wants to rest, and you’re going through the desert, through [extreme heat] and elevations of almost 11,000 feet, so it’s more my muscles wanting to rest than my head.”
She’ll continue to sleep for three hours a day for the first half of RAAM. She cuts her sleeping time in half on the backside, getting about 90 minutes of sleep a day until the race ends. “I would rather take one big block of sleep and ride hard,” because for Goldstein and every other RAAM racer, “The time doesn’t stop; it’s always ticking.”
The balance between pedaling and sleeping is tricky to master. “If you cut your sleep too short, you’re not pedaling very fast, and your efficiency isn’t very good,” Goldstein says. Sleep more than a few hours a day, and you risk not finishing before the 12-day cut-off time.
“There is not one best strategy for everybody,” Strasser says of making a sleep plan. “It’s a very individual decision and everyone has to find their own personal favorite.”
An alternate sleep strategy used by RAAM racers — the power nap
A seasoned RAAM racer, Strasser is now one of the cyclists that rely on “the power nap strategy.” Within the first 24 hours, Strasser sleeps for just 20 minutes. This makes staying awake during that second night far less challenging. The other benefit is that waking up is easier after a power nap.
“When you sleep [longer], you’re very confused when you wake up because your body shuts down,” explains Strasser, “But when you just do a power nap… your muscles don’t get cold, and when you wake up, you’re much clearer in your mind.”
He’ll continue this plan for the first half of the race, sleeping just 80 minutes over four days of racing. Then his sleep needs a bigger boost. From the second half onward, he’ll combine a power nap during the day and sleep anywhere from 50 to 70 minutes during the night until the finish line.
“It’s always flexible,” Strasser says of his sleep plan. “If you’re riding strong and feeling strong, you can reduce sleeping. But if you have problems in the Rocky Mountains, if it’s very cold or hot in the desert, then you might need a bit more sleep. You always plan for the best case and have Plan B for the worst case.”
How do cyclists know when it’s time to rest?
Quite surprisingly, it’s not up to Strasser and Goldstein when they sleep. That decision falls on their crew. Strasser races with a crew of 11, while Goldstein’s team is made up of nine. Crews vary from racer to racer, but generally include a crew chief, doctor or nurse, physiotherapist, mechanic, drivers, navigators, media teams, and other support persons. The crew rotates between night shift and day shift, staying in constant communication with their cyclist the entire time. Planned breaks have been decided ahead of time by the crew chief, but there’s also some flexibility given what the cyclist’s bodies require during the race. When racers tell their team that they feel tired, it’s the crew’s job to help them stay awake until it’s really time to go to bed, one, two, or sometimes many hours later.
“My crew is my brain. If I am pedaling 15 kilometers an hour and I should be going 25, and I can’t turn the pedals, then they will probably take me down a little bit earlier if it makes sense and I’m not moving very fast,” says Goldstein, adding that it pays off mentally to stick to the plan as close as possible. When she’s almost falling asleep on the bike and eating peanuts to stay awake, knowing how much further she has to go until a scheduled break helps her push through.
For Strasser, it’s important that he doesn’t get bored, so he’s all about his entertainment program — listening to music and chatting with his crew to keep him company.
Sleep happens in one of the two vehicles that stay with racers along the course: their RV or their follow vehicle. Planned rests usually happen in the comfort of the RV bed, which has been prepared and sits parked waiting at a determined location, while unplanned sleep is usually done in the passenger seat of the follow car. For this type of rest, cyclists simply hop off their bikes, lie down in the reclined seat, and usually fall asleep within a couple of minutes, if not seconds.
When it is time for sleep, it’s a finely tuned, highly coordinated affair. “We have a very good plan for a sleep break. The people in my crew know exactly what to do and who does which job during the sleep break,” says Strasser. While he’s sleeping, the crew chief, the doctor, and the physiotherapist all have work to do, checking vitals, doing massages, and getting Strasser ready for the next race leg.
For Goldstein, no matter how wired she thought she was, her crew chief told her she was out cold in about 15 seconds. “Then, when they wake you up, you don’t have a lot of time to sit there staring at the ceiling. Your bike is waiting outside, and your crew is like, ‘Giddy up!’”
The effects of extreme sleep deprivation: Seeing things that aren’t there
With bodies operating at this level of exhaustion and performance, hallucinations come with the territory. “You’re going to see things; it’s inevitable,” says Goldstein. It’s how those visions are managed during RAAM that matters because the consequences can be disastrous (veering into oncoming traffic is a big concern for racers).
Strasser relies on the power naps to hopefully avoid hallucinations but admits they can kick in on the second night. “The first few small hallucinations come after two days definitely, but not in a very tough, intense way like [near the end],” says Strasser.
The standard tricks his mind plays involve thinking he’s riding in a circle, repeating the same climb over and over, and forgetting that he’s in a race. Once, while racing in Ireland, he hallucinated that the road was covered in thousands of dead sheep. He got off his bike and pushed it through what he thought was tall grass to avoid crashing into livestock that weren’t actually there. A former bike messenger, Strasser also sometimes finds himself looking for his parcels and asking his crew for delivery addresses.
For Goldstein, the hallucinations typically kick in between 30 and 40 hours. Boulders look like moving monsters, and animals appear as dinosaurs and other creatures. Sometimes inanimate objects turn into her crew members. At one point, she even saw a black panther leap towards her.
“You just go through the hallucinations and enjoy it. I mean, that’s your entertainment. Your brain is so tired, and you’re going to see things whether you like it or not. It’s just a matter of controlling [what you see] and having it not affect how you’re riding,” she says, “I focus on the road; I don’t look around.”
Can you train for this kind of sleep deprivation?
Dr. Sara Forsyth is a sports and exercise medicine physician who works with endurance athletes and ultra-marathoners. She’s also an accomplished triathlete and Ironman competitor who’s familiar with the strain of long-haul competitions. Forsyth doesn’t think it’s possible to turn yourself into someone who can function on very little sleep. “Some people can tolerate sleep deprivation, and some people can’t,” she says.
For these athletes, handling tiredness is a thing of the mind. “A lot of these athletes often train tired to practice some of those cognitive skills you need when you’re sleep-deprived,” says Forsyth. Training in a less than optimally rested state helps athletes understand and develop awareness around perceived exertion.
Goldstein is one of the athletes that uses this training strategy. “I want my body to get used to it and push hard being sleep-deprived.” Through this method, she’s extended her awake time before taking that first rest. “The most I went when I started was about 38 hours, whereas now I can go for 44 or 45 hours [before sleeping].”
But her ability to power through intense sleep deprivation also hearkens back to her training days in the Israeli Defense Force. “I think because of my military background, I’ve been able to function on very little sleep.” On top of that, “it’s just in my genetics,” she says. “I think my mom slept less than I did during RAAM.”
Sleep banking is a strategy Forsyth sees many endurance athletes using. “It’s basically accumulating more sleep as you lead up to an event when you’re going to miss sleep,” she says.
This is done through sleep extension (sleeping longer) and napping. Doing so increases an athlete’s time to exhaustion and decreases risk factors that occur under sleep deprivation, like injury, recovery and cognitive decline. When you’re going into an ultra-endurance test like RAAM, sleep excess can help pad your threshold for exhaustion by, hopefully, a few days.
Strasser uses the sleep banking approach in the time leading up to big multi-day races. Having raced in RAAM nine times, he knows what sleep deprivation feels like and how to handle it, which is why he doesn’t build it into his training plan. “It’s not a big surprise for me when I experience being tired during the race,” he says. “I try to be as fit as possible before the start, so I try to sleep as much as possible in the days before. I think that reduced sleep in daily life or during training periods isn’t beneficial because you need to sleep a lot to recover when you’re training. If you don’t sleep enough, you will not improve your performance.”
No matter what strategy athletes use in their training plan, in the immediate days before the race, they must get as much sleep as possible so that cognitive and muscle function is at an all-time high.
The post-race glow and its impact on sleep
“Sleep is what I’m dreaming of during the race,” Strasser recalls, but it doesn’t come so easy once the race is over. “You’re still in race mode, and everything is still so exciting.” With bodies buzzing and celebrations still underway, neither Strasser nor Goldstein get quality sleep for quite some time. Strasser doesn’t get his first good sleep until four or five days later when he’s back in his bed in Austria.
The same goes for Goldstein. “After the race, my eyes are wide open, and I’m staring at the ceiling. Because [my] body is so messed up, it takes me a good week before I’m back to a normal cycle.”
When these athletes return to normalcy, sleep looks a lot like what it does for most people. “My sleeping routine in daily life is quite ordinary. There’s nothing special about it,” Strasser explains. “I’m a guy who likes to sleep long in the mornings and I like to stay awake into the night. I go to bed at 1 a.m. and sleep until 8 a.m., getting about seven hours per day.”
“At night, I kind of turn into a pumpkin,” Goldstein says, sharing that five to six hours of sleep is a good night for her. When she does wake, she’s anything but groggy. Recalling her military days, she adds, “In the Israeli Defense Force, you’re always sleeping with one eye open, so when I wake up, I’m ready to go!”
“I am so interested in these concepts around grit and resilience,” Forsyth concludes. When it comes to pushing the limits of what’s humanly capable, it seems that some people just have what it takes. It’s something the scientific community is trying to understand. However we choose to define and quantify grit, it’s clear that Goldstein and Strasser are in no short supply.