Ken Ray freely admits there isn't a "sane answer" as to why he would sign up for a 4,300-mile bike race across the country. There was no grand inspiration that spurred him to put foot to pedal and head off down our nation's highways and by-ways. No inner yearning, nor anything to prove.
But by not being enclosed in a car, plane or RV, and minus the ruckus and speed of a motorcycle, the 1997 Graves County High School graduate saw tackling the Trans Am Bike Race — from Astoria, Oregon, to Yorktown, Virginia — as a good way to see America.
It also allowed him to see something inside him, as well.
"I never had competed in this type of race where I had to sleep," said Ray, the son of Dr. Buddy and Phyllis Ray. "I've done races where you're riding far and doing things, but you always had an end point at the end of the day. This one, you had to keep going and learn how far I can push myself and how much sleep do I actually need.
"The thing I kept repeating in my head was 'Are you racing or are you riding?'"
That phrase served as an unintended motivational tool. A biking enthusiast for years, Ray said he could have easily flipped the switch and just ridden and enjoyed the sights. But just riding wasn't why he had invested six months of time, energy and planning.
"You sacrifice personal time, you sacrifice other things you could be doing — sacrifice money," he said. "Anyone could ride across the country, but that wasn't what I prepared for. It was almost an homage to myself and friends and loved ones to push and keep going."
Ray ended up finishing the 4,267-mile Trans Am in the early morning hours of June 23 — 19 days after he started — in sixth place. The first seven finishers were the most who had completed the race in fewer than 20 days.
"As I kept riding, 20 days was a nice round number," he explained of his goal. "Then two weeks in and I could see the finish line when I got to Kentucky and saw where I was, I said I could do this in 19 days."
Ray, 38, has competed in approximately 10-12 races a year over the past 6-7 years, but had to create his own regimen to prepare for the Trans Am. Aside from talking to a former Trans Am biker and even examining long distance runners' training techniques, he developed his approach on the fly, which included 150-mile rides from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, California, for three days.
"The farthest I'd ridden was a week prior to the race (when) I did a 12-hour endurance race and did over 240 miles," he said. "On Day One, when you click over 240, I was like every mile from this point on is farther than I've gone before."
Ray logged 285 miles that first day and averaged around 215 miles per day over the next 18 days to Virginia. On his final day, he raced 305 miles and crossed the finish line just before dawn.
Some bikers are still on the race route, marking over a month of being on the road.
Headwinds and junk food
Weather was the X factor. Ray recalled at the beginning of the race, morning temperatures would dip into the 30s. Then heading eastward into the nation's heartland, Ray ran into strong wind before enduring blazing heat and humidity by the time he hit Illinois and Kentucky.
He said the day before reaching Yellowstone National Park, he had to ride for 60 miles into headwinds at a constant 30 mph with gusts up to 40 mph. Biking that stretch took him 10 hours.
"If I'd been a day slower through Yellowstone, the people (behind him) got snowed on," Ray added. "And there were rains later in Kansas I didn't have. Some got horrendous weather."
Another test to his fortitude was simply eating along the route. With restaurants few and far between, convenience stores were the prime source for food with a honey bun here, a pack of Nutter Butters there and more than a few Twinkies in between.
Ray ate gas station fare ahead of time to make sure his system could use them as fuel, considering he had to consume between 8,000-10,000 calories a day to keep going.
"But until race day, you don't really know," he said of his experiment. "You stop and try to get enough food, water (and) Gatorade to last you 3-4 hours. It was tough eating junk food for three weeks."
'Trail Angels' in America
With bikers spread out over some distance and mountains and wide open spaces all around, the race also provided Ray, a landscape architect who lives in Washington, D.C., some introspection.
"Eastern Colorado through Kansas was your 'Zen moment,'" he said, recalling more headwinds that made it seem as if he was navigating the near 12,000-foot elevation of the Rockies' Hoosier Pass he had to power over instead of the pan-flat farmland he was riding. "There was nothing to think about but keeping the bike straight. But you definitely take in the scale of our country; the vastness and desolation, even."
Communities dotted along the route reminded him of his Graves County home, with hamlets similar to Pryorsburg and some bigger towns he compared to Fancy Farm or Wingo, where Ray went to elementary school.
"You were thinking a lot about your current life, your past stuff and our country, in general," he noted. "There was definitely plenty of time to do those kind of reflections."
While the riders couldn't accept non-commercial assistance, Ray said there were "trail angels" who would follow the race online (trackleaders.com/transam17) and would cheer them on as they passed their homes and businesses.
"It was heartwarming," he added. "That went into the whole reflection and thinking about our country and seeing how nice everyone was regardless of state or where you were at."
The next race?
Ray doesn't have another race on his radar. Other long distance races would be intriguing, but as for now he's getting acclimated to life off the highway.
"I'm just getting used to riding my bike on normal lengths and seeing scenery and not worrying about anything other than stopping to get coffee and not how long it's taking you," he said.
But while trying to get back into his daily routine (he finished the Trans Am on a Friday and was back to work on Monday), Ray is currently journaling his thoughts and enjoys talking about his various experiences over the race's many miles.
"You had the inner reflection piece and learned a lot about yourself, and you find out how much you can push yourself. You used to ride 100 miles and it was a big deal. Now, I know I can ride 200-300 if I have to," he explained.
"And just humanity itself. It was refreshing to see nice people out and how much they respected what we were doing. In the middle of Missouri or Montana, it was great to see the country and the people in it."