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Ready to Roll : Thousand Oaks cyclist prepares for grueling 2,930-mile race across the country.


Think of Steve Born on Saturday morning. He'll be in Irvine, pedaling.

Think of him again on Sunday. By then, he'll probably be in Arizona, sleepless and still pedaling. Monday, Tuesday and the rest of the week: pedaling, pedaling and more pedaling, through southern Colorado, Texas and beyond.

Born, a 32-year-old sound effects editor who lives in Thousand Oaks, is one of 36 long-distance bicyclists expected to begin the 10th annual Race Across America (RAAM) in Orange County on Saturday morning.

"It's an extreme challenge, and it requires everything you have," Born said recently, relaxing after an easy 50-mile morning ride. "It makes me tap into things that most people wouldn't even dream of exploring."

This year's course stretches across 2,930 miles and concludes in Savannah, Ga. The clock never stops, and every racer sleeps as little as possible. If past results are a fair indicator, the winner will cross the country in nine days, sleeping no more than two hours nightly along the way. Most of those who start will not finish.

By all accounts, the race is one of the most demanding sporting events in Western civilization. By Born's estimate, it is "the most difficult athletic contest on the planet."

He says he can't resist the challenge, and gleefully explains his plans for a liquid diet, intravenous dietary supplements, massages while he sleeps and daily blood tests to check his potassium levels. The key to his strategy this year: For the first 42 hours of the race, he's not going to rest.

"This race really models life itself to me, and it really identifies the kind of person I am," Born said.

The race was devised 10 years ago by John Marino, a long-distance bicyclist in Orange County whose best cross-country time was 12 days. Marino, a 42-year-old contractor, takes time off to arrange the race every year, and is quick to note that for all its strenuousness, no major injuries have been reported.

Last year's winner, Bob Forney of Denver, finished in eight days, 11 hours and 26 minutes.

This year, Marino expects 32 solo bicyclists (28 men, four women), plus a two-man tandem bike team and a man-woman tandem team competing in separate categories. More than half of the riders, Marino said, have competed before in the cross-country race.

Veterans and rookies alike pay $500 for the chance to race. Those who complete the route within 48 hours of the winner get recognition as official finishers. The cash prizes amount to less than the cost of a competition bicycle. Full physical recovery from the race--blisters, strains, saddle sores--can take months.

Born's sponsor-seeking brochure takes note of such details, and concludes that the cyclist "could really use some professional help."

Born, who is single, grew up in Wisconsin, Van Nuys and Thousand Oaks, where he has lived since fourth grade. He settled on a career in sound editing after several years at Moorpark College. His biking career began about 1980, an occasion he describes in confessional tones.

"I smoked cigarettes and I weighed over 200 pounds," he said. "I woke up one morning and looked at myself."

Born quit smoking cold turkey and soon embarked on his first long-distance ride, a solitary voyage from Oregon to Los Angeles. Many miles followed. Six years later, he heard about the Race Across America, and set about qualifying.

In 1988, he entered the race and completed a 3,100-mile journey from San Francisco to Washington in 10 days, 20 hours and 58 minutes. That was good enough for ninth place, despite the mid-journey resignation of his massage therapist and wrong turns in Nevada, Indiana and West Virginia.

While out on the road in that race, he promised himself never to attempt it again. Once he finished, he immediately started thinking about how he would prepare the next time.

In 1989, Born worked on the support crew of a friend's RAAM effort. In 1990, he was too busy with personal and professional obligations. But this year, he took six months off from work and sank about $8,000 into training and equipment, all for the chance to suffer inordinately for about a week and a half.

At 5 feet, 10 inches tall, he weighs in at 178 pounds, and estimates that just 4% of his body weight is fat. For weeks, he trained at high altitudes, riding up to 900 miles weekly near Lake Tahoe to increase his endurance. Even so, he said, there's no telling what could happen once the race is on.

"Four or five days out on the road, the field is so spread out that you don't see anybody," Born said. "You can forget you're in a race. You're in Kansas and there's a good 20-m.p.h. head wind. . . . By this time you've only had six or eight hours of sleep in four days, and it's easy to start making excuses to get off the bike for a while."

During one hourlong stretch in 1988, Born recalled, he got off the bike 10 times to go to the bathroom. Other riders have reported startling mood swings, frog hallucinations and conversations with deities.

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