Grueling, dangerous, exhilarating, the Race Across America (RAAM) is all of those things and more.
Phil Fox, Jr., can attest to that.
Fox, 39, competed in last month’s ultra-distance road cycling event that took riders from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md.
He placed fifth overall, second among American cyclists, and was named the RAAM Rookie of the Year.
Fox is the son of Phil Fox, Sr., who grew up just outside of Greenfield on the family farm in Stringtown. Phil, Sr., is a 1970 graduate of Eastern Hancock High School.
The elder Fox, who will turn 70 this month, still runs the family farm, contracting it out to a local farmer. He lives in Chicago, moving there after graduating from Purdue University, but his brother, Bob Fox and nephew Jeremy Fox still live in the Greenfield area.
He’s not a racer, but riding a bike was a way Phil, Sr., got around his parents’ (Raymond ‘Woody’ Fox and Florence Lou Fox) farm when he was a kid.
“It was the form of transportation, or the farm tractor, but I was not into long distances like Phil has been,” Phil, Sr., said.
Phil, Sr., and his wife, Marieta, caught up with their son during his trek through Effingham, Ill., then headed out to Annapolis to cheer him on as he neared the finish line.
“They found us in central Illinois, in Effingham, and followed along all the way to the finish line in Annapolis,” Phil, Jr., said. “We would see them waving flags and holding signs every now and again. When you are riding your bike for 18 to 20 hours a day, those moments really do make a difference from a motivation standpoint.”
Dad got son started, though there was a break when two wheels were traded for four.
“(My dad) bought me my first bike, taught me how to ride a bike and took me on rides as a youth,” Phil, Jr., added. “He showed me bike trails.”
“Just like any American kid, you get your driver’s license, then you’re done riding a bike. It took 8-9 years before I moved to Chicago and realized driving here (stinks), and so does finding parking, and traffic. Then, I fell in love with the bike again and it’s been a special relationship ever since.”
This year’s RAAM marked the 40th anniversary of the event that covers 3,000 miles. The race is 1,000 miles longer than the Tour de France.
Unlike the Tour, Race Across America has no stages. It’s non-stop.
Fox finished his race through the desert, Colorado mountains, crosswinds of the Great Plains, midwest humidity and the Appalachian Mountains in 11 days, 5 hours and 33 minutes.
Thirty-three cyclist began the race on June 14. There were only 14 — and just three Americans — able to finish. Jim Trout, of Grand Rapids, Mich., placed fourth. Les Crooks, of Mishawaka, Ind., placed seventh.
Fox said the hardest part was the sleep deprivation.
“It’s one thing to push it for three or four days, but once you get to seven to 10, it starts to really catch up with you,” Phil, Jr., said. “You have to manage the race. First and foremost, you want to be safe. If I fall asleep on the bike, crash, go into oncoming traffic, that’s going to be a problem for the crew and my family. Towards the end a lot of the sleep management became problematic. Every day had its own challenges.”
Fox, who works for a market research company as a full-time job, raced through it all, including 42-degree temperatures and rain, in a two-mile high trek up Wolf Creek’s Pass in Colorado at 3 a.m. It came right after 105-degree temperatures in the Arizona sun the day before.
“There was a huge range of different challenges over the 11-plus days we were racing,” he added.
Fox said he had been focusing on competing in the RAAM for the last four years. Part of his preparation included setting a world record. Last year, he cycled around Lake Michigan (920 miles) in a record-time of 64 hours.
“That was probably the time period where the crew and I were trying to get really confident that we could pull off the Race Across America,” he said.
The 10-member crew was in its first RAAM, too. They are his support staff of follow vehicles. They kept him fed and safe, along with other assistance. Fox said he would often have to change kits — usually every four or five hours — during his long day of riding. Some crew members would do his laundry while being passengers in one of the follow vehicles.
Will he do it again?
“I think it’s going to be difficult for anything to compare to the Race Across America,” Phil, Jr., said. “It’s called the world’s hardest bike race. It lives up to that reputation, absolutely. Finishing this race is very much a lifetime achievement. I think we’ll be back, but not any time soon. Maybe when my kids are older.”
“I think there’s improvement to be had in our performance in this race. We learned a lot,” he added. “In the meantime, I’ll do some smaller events. I might do the Race Across France or try to set a world record or two. I’ll take a year and assess and enjoy time with the family.”
One of the records Fox said he is eyeing is a different route across America, going north to south. He would cycle from Minneapolis to the southern tip in Texas. He said the record is 40-years old and is something he may attempt in the next couple of years.
In addition of his lifetime achievement in the RAAM, Fox was racing for a cause.
During the race, he and his team took donations for Bike MS, a fundraiser through the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Fox said he had hoped to raise $50,000 for the cause this summer. They were nearing $40,000 when he completed RAAM. He said donations can still be made.
“It’s a cause near and dear to my heart,” he said. “Two of my best friends from high school were diagnosed with MS just weeks from one another just over 10 years ago.”
He said he struggled on finding a way he could help his friends, but he has been dedicated to raise money for MS through his cycling.
“Anything I can do to bring attention and awareness and funds to help with research and resources for the million people in the United States, and their families, struggling with this disease, I feel like that’s my responsibility to do what I can,” Phil, Jr., said.
He said they received a lot of donations during the RAAM. Over 200 people have donated the $40,000.
“This money changes lives and does a tremendous amount of good. Hopefully we can raise just a little more before the end of summer,” Phil, Jr., added.
Donations can be made through TeamPhilFox.com.