Andrew Willis ready for second attempt at Race Across the West

This was at the start of 2015 Race Across the West in Oceanside, CA. This year's race is 928 miles and starts at noon Pacific coast time Tuesday June 14, finishing in Durango. Photo by Holly AmmermanLast year, Andrew Willis slid off his bicycle 130 miles into the Race Across the West, overheated, dehydrated and 11 pounds lighter than when he started the grueling race from California to Colorado.

Emergency room nurses pumped three bags of IV fluids into his veins, and as he slowly revived, he realized he hadn’t properly prepared for the intensity of the heat, which had climbed to 126 degrees.

This year, he thinks he’s ready.

I spoke to Willis yesterday as he drove from Texas to Oceanside, California, where the race will begin at noon next Tuesday. If all goes as planned, he’ll ride 928 miles (that’s 80 miles longer than last year’s route) to Durango, Colorado, crossing deserts and mountains along the way.

“Last year, I was worried about what place I was in in relation to everyone else. I dropped into the desert and went charging off full speed,” he says. “I had some success later in the year, and realized that you have to slow down when it’s hot and you’ve got to take your time with nutrition and drinking. It pays huge dividends later.”

Willis is president of Holland Racing, which puts on the weekly Driveway Race Series.

Andrew Willis dropped out of the 2015 Race Across the West, overheated and dehydrated. Photo by Holly Ammerman
Andrew Willis dropped out of the 2015 Race Across the West, overheated and dehydrated. Photo by Holly Ammerman

He’d approached the event, put on by the creators of the famous Race Across America, like a road racer, when he needed to train like an endurance athlete.

“These are really races against yourself, and your best is either enough to win, or just finish, or get fifth place. Outside of that, there’s really not a lot you can do about it,” Willis says.

This year Willis adjusted the way he trains. He spends more time riding indoors, on a stationary trainer. He’ll ride seven or eight hours straight, without pause, sometimes saying goodnight to his wife and hopping on the trainer to spin through the night, purposely depriving himself of sleep and acclimating to warm temperatures.

“I’ll crank the heat up to 90 degrees,” he says. “Even though it’s not 100 or 105, you don’t have the air flow you’d have outside. So 90 degrees indoors is a lot hotter than 90 degrees outside, when you’re moving through the air.”

Unlike riding on the road, where cyclists can coast, a stationary trainer requires constant pedaling.

“It has a really good effect on these ultra endurance events, and it’s allowed me to focus on how much I’m eating and drinking,” he says.
He does longer outdoor rides, too, parking his van, stocked with an ice chest full of water and electrolytes, and logging 20-mile laps all day long.

Willis changed his training regime this year. Photo by Holly Ammerman.
Willis changed his training regime this year. Photo by Holly Ammerman.

“It’s the only way I can ride outside and practice drinking enough,” he says. “If you’re out in the desert you have to be able to absorb three to four bottles an hour. If I was relying on convenience stores, I’d be spending a ton of time refilling bottles.”

He’s taught his body to take in 60 to 85 ounces of water an hour. (He pees while he’s on the bike, if you must know.)

Last year’s winning time was 65 hours. Willis says he’s trying not to set a goal time, because he doesn’t want to feel like he’s ever behind pace, but race organizers have said he’s a favorite to win.

Stay tuned. We’ll be tracking Willis along the way.

Author: Pam LeBlanc

Pam LeBlanc writes about fitness and travel for the Austin American-Statesman. She has worked for the Statesman since 1998 and written her weekly fitness column, Fit City, since 2004.

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