About this time last week, Andrew Willis was pedaling his way up a mountain, grimacing because it felt like someone was rolling his foot in crushed glass with every stroke.
The pain, a byproduct of a gout flareup, forced him into a 12-hour break in the middle of the 930-mile Race Across the West. But Willis eventually got back in the saddle, finished the ride and returned to Austin, where today he’s soaking in the afterglow of his accomplishment. (He’s also still sorting through mounds of laundry, but that’s another story.)
Willis, 39, rode his bicycle from Oceanside, California, to Durango, Colorado in three and a half days. An early favorite to contend for the win, he managed an eighth place finish. Still, that finish ranks as a pretty epic accomplishment, considering he spent more than 20 hours off the bike along the way.
Willis has coped with gout, the crystallization of uric acid in body tissue, for eight years, experiencing painful episodes every 16 months or so. He tried to control the condition through diet and by cutting out alcohol, but the morning the race started, he felt the start of a flareup.
Three hundred and fifty miles in, every pedal stroke hurt.
“It was the most excruciating pain, and I could see my shoe bulging (from inflammation),” Willis said this week, back home in Austin. “We considered cutting my shoe to relieve the pressure. Going up the mountain for a couple hours, I would ride 500 feet and have to get off, thinking I needed to throw up from the pain.”
At one point, in the dead of night with a 20-mile winding descent ahead, they pulled off the course and Willis slept it off in a hotel room.
The next morning he was unsure if he wanted to continue, until a crew member who’d experienced gout convinced him to try again. “He said the taste it would leave in my mouth by getting in the van and not trying would be a lot worse than if I just got on the bike and tried to ride a mile,” Willis said.
Willis consulted with his doctor to make sure he wouldn’t risk permanent damage by riding. The doctor assured him he wouldn’t, so he pedaled on.
“It was a really depressing sensation going back out and getting on the bike knowing I still had 456 miles to go, thinking all I’m doing is driving out here to fail,” he said. “I felt horrible.”
But after a tough 10 or 12 hours of plodding along, things began to improve. Willis paused in Flagstaff to eat pizza and ice cream in the support van, and to pick up some gout medication prescribed by his doctor and treat his worsening saddle sores. Then he got back on the bike and kept going.
“I rode through the night, then the sun came up. Something about riding when sun comes up and you’ve been riding all night is really empowering,” he said. “Something that next day really clicked.”
For the first time, he was facing a new challenge – racing to make the race cut-off time. Suddenly it wasn’t about winning, it was about finishing, and Willis calls that one of the best things that happened.
He rode the last 300 miles better than the first 300. “Faster, stronger,” he said. “I had to. We didn’t have much time left on the clock, and I found a level of motivation to get to Durango I didn’t even know I had, this extra gear.”
Willis started the California-to-Colorado race at about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 14. He crossed under the finish arch in Durango at 1:30 a.m. Saturday, June 18.
The ride took him from the ocean, through barren desert and rocky expanses, into sand dunes and then pine trees and mountains and streams.
“One of coolest parts was climbing out of Mexican Hat, Utah,” Willis said. “It was 115 degrees and so sizzling hot, and you come up over the top and in the distance you see snow-capped peaks. It’s so enticing, knowing that’s waiting for you.”
Sarah Cooper, a mother of four, won the open division of the grueling race. Despite his delays, Willis passed five people on his way into Durango.
“Aside from starting a family with Holly, this was by far the most amazing experience of my life and I learned so much,” he said afterward. “While I was out there after the setback, I just couldn’t help but keep thinking about how lucky I was to be out there and what an amazing experience this was. Maybe that’s an age thing, I don’t know, but I do know that my younger self would have been stuck on, ‘Why the gout’ and ‘Why me’ and ‘Why now.’”
Now that he’s back, Willis is already thinking about the next time. He wants to try Ride Across the West again, to see how he can do when it’s just about his fitness and not about a badly timed gout flareup.
“There’s a lineup of races in the fall and I’m just trying to hold myself back from getting on the bike too quick,” he said. “I love this sport, and I know it seems insane and all, but it motivates me and that rolls over into other areas of my life.”
This year’s Race Across the West marks Willis’ second attempt at the grueling endurance event. Last year he dropped out after 130 miles, overcome by the heat and dehydration.
Willis is president of Holland Racing, which puts on the weekly Thursday night races at The Driveway in Austin.
Watch a sleep-deprived Andrew Willis talk about his ride here.