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PROFILE : Race of a Lifetime : Emmy Klassen plans to pedal 2,931 miles from Irvine to Savannah, Ga., in one of the toughest endurance events in the country.

July 21, 1994|KEN McALPINE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Six days from now, Emmy Klassen will straddle a bicycle outside a Holiday Inn in Irvine. Around her people will hurry about, occupied by important matters. Banners will sag in the morning quiet. There will be a final few words of encouragement, only half heard. Klassen will lift her head and peer into a distance she can't see, her mind's eye reeling through scrubby deserts, mountain passes and sweeping seas of dust-brown grass and two-lane roads that turn into blackness spotted by fireflies.

Wish Klassen luck. On Wednesday, the 35-year-old obstetrics nurse from Ojai will join 30 other riders in the Race Across America (RAAM), cycling's annual paean to grit and mule-headedness, and arguably the toughest endurance event in the country.

Certainly events like the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon (140 miles of swimming, cycling and running) and the Western States Endurance Run (100 miles of hellish Sierra Nevada trail) test mettle and muscle. But these dilettantes are home soaking their muscles by the end of the day.

This year's RAAM covers 2,931 miles from Irvine to Savannah, Ga. The women's winner is expected to finish in about nine days.

"They say the race doesn't even start until you hit the Mississippi," Klassen said. "That's 2,000 miles."

This will be Klassen's first--and perhaps only--RAAM. Like most events in our lives, Klassen came to the RAAM through a combination of fate and inclination. For several years she had dabbled in triathlons. One day she arrived at a group training ride to find a new face, that of Premananda Childs. He had done the RAAM.

After several rides with Klassen, Childs, a 49-year-old homeopath from Ojai, noticed that Klassen's strengths matched the requirements of the RAAM--the longer she went, the stronger she got. Almost immediately he began to put the bug in her ear, namely by dragging Klassen on longer and longer rides. Their first experiment, a 350-mile round-trip loop from Ojai to Los Osas proved a success. Their second test proved a shock.

Klassen entered last October's Furnace Creek 508 bicycle race with few expectations. Yes, the race--508 miles from Valencia to Twenty Nine Palms, a large parts of it through Death Valley--was a qualifier for the 1994 RAAM, but Klassen gave little thought to that.

To qualify she would have to win or finish within spitting distance of the women's winner, and she had no illusions of doing either. Most riders make numerous tries before they qualify to ride the RAAM, and many more never do.

So it came as some surprise when--400 miles into the race and feeling strong--she realized she was going to win. Pulling up next to her escort van, Klassen grinned at her crew members inside. Anybody have plans this coming July? Shortly thereafter a second thought occurred to her.

"About 10 minutes later I was like, 'Oh God, how am I going to get out of this?' " she said.

Truth is, Klassen already had a few things going for her before she turned to long-distance cycling. Most important, at least in terms of RAAM, she was no stranger to hard work and long hours. For the past 10 years she has worked as an obstetrics nurse at Ojai Valley Hospital--the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift--while raising a son, now 13, as a single mother.

"I've got a lot of practice at sleep deprivation," she said.

This will stand her in good stead as she wheels across the country. Time being important, RAAM riders waste as little of it as possible. During the 1983 race, RAAM rider Michael Shermer rode from Santa Monica to Haigler, Neb.--1,500 miles and nearly five days--without sleep.

By that time his competitors were strung out behind him, but Shermer had other concerns. Convinced his support crew was a group of aliens intent on killing him, he refused to accept any nourishment--how easy to poison a banana--and sporadically quizzed his enemies about intimate details of his past, things that only close Earth friends would know.

Competitors have since decided that sleep is important, but they still allot a minimum amount of time to it and to other biological essentials. Klassen will do most of her eating on the bike--mostly energy drinks, plus a few solid foods like pasta and energy bars. She plans to sleep three to four hours a day, going down somewhere around 2 a.m. and rising at dawn.

This still may not be enough to fend off hallucinations. Not long ago, Klassen talked to Muffy Ritz, the second place woman at last year's RAAM. "She said she saw knickknacks," Klassen said. "Like someone was having a yard sale along the side of the road."

Knickknacks are a decided improvement on what really does lurk on the roadside.

"At night in the desert, snakes and tarantulas come up and sit on the side of the road because it's still warm," Childs said. "You kind of have to hop your bike over them." Childs will serve as Klassen's coach during the RAAM, riding in one of three escort vehicles that will trail her throughout the race.

"Ugh!" Klassen said with a shudder. "I hate snakes."

Though it's virtually impossible to predict what will happen in a race that traverses California, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia, Klassen hopes to log about 300 miles a day and finish the RAAM in between 10 and 11 days.

She would like to wheel into the parking lot of the Savannah Hyatt before Aug. 8. There, her father and her son will be waiting to help her celebrate, not just her finish, but her 36th birthday.

"I want to get there in time to have birthday cake," she said. "Then I'll probably sleep."

All of this raises an obvious question. Even Klassen isn't entirely sure why she's doing the RAAM.

"Everybody has their own goals, things they want to do in life," she said. "Sometimes you're afraid, so you never reach for them. This is what I've picked, but I can't give you a reason why."

Klassen smiled.

"Maybe I'll have a better idea when I'm done."

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