He pedaled 2,700 miles, leaving a trail of sweat, tears and more than a few of his wits, and then, on the 12th morning, in the wet and foggy Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, his legs stopped working and it was over.
So far, yet not far enough.
Jim DeGraffenreid had failed by only 400 miles to cross the country.
DeGraffenreid, 23, a loan processor from North Long Beach, has mixed feelings about his performance in the recent Race Across America, which has been called bicycling's ultimate test.
The crushing disappointment he felt when he realized he would never make the finish line in Atlantic City has eased somewhat and been replaced by pride. But the fact that he didn't finish and accomplish his goal keeps gnawing at him and makes him think about trying again next year.
"I think, 'Yeah, that was great,' " DeGraffenreid said, "and at the same time I'll think, 'Yeah, but I didn't quite make it.' "
He pushed hard most of the way with strength that surprised him because he had never ridden more than 700 miles before. But his mind was not always willing to go along for the ride.
"The mood swings were radical," he said.
"Everything would be going great, I'd be flying along, then in a half hour I would go into a depression."
Heat Caused Problems
Heat was a problem the first few days of the race, which started in Huntington Beach. Because of it, DeGraffenreid didn't want to eat. He developed stomach problems. He got sick.
One morning, DeGraffenreid climbed stiffly on his bike after an unsatisfactory two-hour nap and faced another stretch of the Southwest, long, flat and boring. He became more nauseated when all he could think about was how far New Mexico was from New Jersey.
"I said, 'I'm feeling this lousy now and I have another week to go . . . . No way.' "
So DeGraffenreid jumped off, threw his bike down and said, "That's it."
In half an hour he was back on, flying along.
"Filling up time was the biggest problem," DeGraffenreid said. "There's a limited amount of things you can do on a bicycle."
Ride Seemed Endless
He had 22 hours a day to fill, to fight the monotony of a journey that seemed endless.
He listened to tapes. He sang. He told jokes to his crew members. He worked puzzles in his head. He tried to figure out how far competitors were in front of him.
And when his appetite returned, it was greeted with "some of the grossest stuff in the world"--macaroni and tuna for dinner, mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs for breakfast, concoctions high in carbohydrates and protein but low in inspiration.
For inspiration, he had to wait until one evening just before sunset when he crossed the Mississippi River at Memphis.
"It was a psychological boost," DeGraffenreid said. "I felt I was actually getting somewhere. Being from California, I've always felt that the Mississippi River was so far east. I felt the Atlantic Ocean was around the next corner."
Instead of the ocean, however, DeGraffenreid found 600 miles of Tennessee, which literally blew his mind. He began to hallucinate.
"He stopped and we said, 'Jim, you've got to ride,' " said Dick Stout, DeGraffenreid's stepfather and a member of his crew. "He said, 'I can't do that now, they've asked me to solve this murder mystery.' We said, 'Jim, you've got to ride.' "
DeGraffenreid snapped out of it and rode.
2 Hours' Sleep
The nights he had feared were generally kind to him. He would ride until about 4 a.m. and then sleep for two hours--and then get up and ride into the sunrise. Although once in Arkansas he refused to awake until he had slept four hours.
He was buoyed by people who cheered along the roads and gave thumbs-up signs from their cars. But he also had to put up with people screaming disparaging things at him out windows and a report that a man near Nashville was intent on wiping out a cyclist with a car.
That threat was not taken lightly because one racer, Wayne Phillips, had been paralyzed by a hit-and-run driver in Texas.
By the time DeGraffenreid left Tennessee, Jonathon Boyer of Pebble Beach had already crossed the finish line to win. It was apparent that DeGraffenreid would not finish within 48 hours of Boyer and thus be eligible for prize money.
But DeGraffenreid had never quit a race before.
No One to Welcome Him
He still wanted to finish--that had been his goal against much more experienced competitors--although he knew that even if he did there would be no one to welcome him because the race would be long over.
So with a last frenetic burst, and in the face of rain, wind and fog, DeGraffenreid attacked the slopes of North Carolina and Virginia.
For three days he battled the Blue Ridge Parkway and made it as far as Roanoke, Va. By then he was down to 5 miles per hour (his usual pace was 12-15 m.p.h.) because his leg, despite frequent massages from his physical therapist, kept tightening up. He could barely bend it enough to pedal.
"He started pumping hard, then realized it was senseless," Stout said. "His spirit was amazing. He didn't want to quit."
But DeGraffenreid knew Atlantic City was unreachable, 400 miles away. He would be among 10 of 25 who would not make it.
He got off his bike and went to sleep.
"Out like a light," he said.