Monday, March 4, 2013

Be Nice to Your Crew

This last summer I had the privilege to serve as crew chief for Team Kinema (pronounced Kin-eh-ma) at the Race Across America (RAAM).  To those of you who may not know or be familiar with it, RAAM is undeniably the toughest, most grueling bike race in the world.  It is 3000 miles, non-stop, from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland.  Teams and solo riders take on this incredible challenge and if fortune is upon them, they complete the race between 6 and 12 days.  Sleep is a foreign concept during the race, and the stress upon individuals physically, and even more-so, mentally, is incredible.  I'm not kidding that RAAM can cause otherwise sane and sound people to be driven into psychosis and hallucinations.  If you ever wanted to experience a psychotic break, race RAAM as a rider or crew member.  I personally enjoyed 60 hours of no sleep.  A fellow crew member was sure that she was being stalked by an otter when she snuck off away from the car to pee.  The issue was that this otter apparently lived in the Arizona desert.  RAAM has been described as something more than a race and this fact is true.  It is beyond a race.  It is a descent into the ultimate in human endurance and it is no joke.  RAAM has collected its toll in broken bodies and broken minds. 

Racers have died in RAAM.

Solo racers and teams launch on different days, as teams invariably overtake soloists a few days into the race, and the organizers prefer everyone finish within a reasonable spread of one another.  So, our team headed down to the start line to watch the solo riders begin their race.  Before each rider would leave, they were interviewed with a mic on a loudspeaker by the ride director, so they could say a few words to the crowd.  I remember one racer in particular who was asked by the director, "Do you have any advice for the other racers and teams during the race?"  The answer was short, concise, but incredibly meaningful.  Five words.  "Be nice to your crew".

This may at first sound simple and trite, but consider a solo racer a couple years earlier who had recruited his family members as crew.  About 500 miles into the race and deep in the boiling desert, he was coming apart.  The story is that he continually berated the crew and let out an endless assault of stinging criticism.  Bear in mind that crew is also mentally and physically exhausted, often going sleepless, without food, without showers, and more, and they are tasked with encouraging the racer.  At some point, as the follow vehicle crawled along behind the racer, the driver got too close and tapped the rear wheel of the rider.  The rider hit the deck, but luckily was unharmed, and he had enough energy to once again verbally blast the crew.  This time his chastising backfired.  Big time.  The crew had had enough, and this time, they simply turned the support vehicle around, and headed west, abandoning their rider in the desert.  His race ended right there, and suddenly he learned a hard lesson that he could not continue his journey alone.

Now, I have to say, as a crew member, that you must NEVER abandon a rider.  The racer in this case, although he was a complete jerk, was put into a very dangerous situation.  The desert can get to 120*F, and it wouldn't take long to get into real, life-threatening trouble.  As it turned out, he was okay, and got home, albeit probably not a very happy home.

"Be nice to your crew."  It suddenly speaks volumes.

In the mental health arena, you may be a "racer" or "crew".  As a racer, you are the person with the affliction.  You are the person driving forward against a challenge and internal enemy that is relentlessly striving to put you out of the race and crush you.  You find ways to manage your energy and will, and drive on with the goal to achieve ultimate victory.  The crew are the racer's family and friends.  Those that provide support, encouragement, guidance, refreshment, and a push when needed.

My blog tonight isn't an admonition for someone with a mental illness to be nice to their support system (although it's not a bad idea).  Rather it's intended to highlight just how important the "crew" is, and to prompt those of you who are crew to someone, to know how critically important you are.  Just as in RAAM your racer will not make it without you.  Unlike RAAM, you may find yourself to be support crew completely not of your choice.  Your loved one may have been affected by a mental illness after several years of marriage, or perhaps you saw your brother, sister, or best friend slowly feel the advance of the disease.  Maybe your war-fighter has returned with images in his or her mind that just will not fade.  Whatever the case, welcome to the toughest race in the world.  Like RAAM, this is for real.  People can die.

If you are somebody's crew member, the number one training task for you is to learn about your loved one's disease.  Immerse yourself in literature, blogs, advice columns, and books about it.  Why?  Because when your loved one is coming apart, turning inward, lashing out, or suffering, the success of the entire race falls on you.  In RAAM, crew chiefs were instructed that as the race wore on, they would be more and more responsible for making simple decisions for exhausted racers who would lose huge chunks of cognitive ability.  These simple decisions, and the inevitable complex ones can only be made based upon a foundation of knowledge.  When you understand the illness, you understand what can and should be done to help get your racer to this finish line as a victor, and not a victim.

And just to put a stamp on it, here is a really good music video about support in hard, lonely times...

Ride on.  You can do this.

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