Residents of Missouri were treated to a spectacle they do not normally see this week: bicycle racers traveling across the state.
They're not your typical cyclists, either. They're members of the Race Across America, or RAAM, a 3,000 mile race across 12 states from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland, a distance which is 30 percent longer than the Tour de France.
That sounds hard enough, right?
The racers climb over 170,000 vertical feet in their journey, which makes this seem even more incredibly difficult.
Sound like a challenge?
Too bad. There's more.
Racers have to complete the distance in roughly half of the time allowed for the Tour de France.
That's right. Half the time.
The solo racers have 12 days to finish the race, while the teams have just nine days. Teams of two, four, or eight person relays will ride 350-500 miles a day, racing non-stop. Solo racers will ride 250-350 miles a day, balancing speed and the need for sleep.
So who is crazy enough to do this?
You'd be surprised.
Racers come from all over the world to compete in the event. Racers are both amateurs and professionals, with at least 15 different countries being represented each year. Over 25 countries have been represented over the 30-year history of the race.
Approximately 40 % of the racers are from outside the US. About 15% of the racers are women.
This year, there are 39 solo competitors, 11 two-man teams, 17 four-man teams and seven eight-man teams competing.
The majority of these competitors are just people with a passion for riding their bicycle.
But the stories that accompany these competitors make the feat that much more important.
The majority of these cyclists compete in the event not just for competition, but rather, they compete for a cause. Racers annually raise collectively in excess of $2 million for a wide range of charitable causes.
Christoph Strasser of Austria has already completed the race, setting two new records for crossing the U.S. on a bicycle. He finished the distance in 7 days, 22 hours and 56 minutes on Wednesday, demolishing the previous record of 8 days, 3 hours and 11 minutes in '92 held by Rob Kish from Florida.
Strasser also managed to break the overall speed record, breaking the 15.4 mph record and raising it to 15.66 mph. Strasser's strong pace in the beginning (471 miles in the first 24 hours) gave him a large lead over the other racers and he never looked back.
Strasser is racing for the Lyoness Child and Family Foundation, which supports measures in the field of education by constructing schools in around the world in deprived areas.
The leaders of the eight-man race is the Allied Forces - Team 4Mil/Strategic Lions, comprised of four Americans and four racers from the United Kingdom. Their goal is, of course, to win, but they're racing to help the charities of Team 4Mil and Help For Heroes. They finished the race on Thursday night as the first multiple-person team to cross the finish line.
Page 2 of 2 - Team Cork RAAM Challenge 2013 is a four-man team from Ireland, sponsored by Irish Life, which is racing for Diabetes Ireland.
Another four-man team is Team Laughing Dog Brewing, which is racing for 24 Hours for Hank, a charity which was started to raise money to find a cure for Cystinosis, a rare genetic disease that affects approximately 500 people in the United States (mostly children), and about 2,000 people worldwide. This disease causes the amino acid “cystine” to accumulate in the body’s cells, and over time, cystine buildup slowly destroys various organs, including the kidneys, liver, muscles, white blood cells, eyes and central nervous system.
The teams have had to fight through various weather and terrain, and the race has not been able to escape without incident.
49 year-old Maria Parker is racing to raise money for brain cancer research. She founded 3,000 Miles to a Cure in order to raise $1 million dollars to cure brain cancer. She is an American long-distance cyclist, holding multiple cycling records.
But along the way, she was brought to a halt as her supply van was rear-ended, along with her two spare bikes, with all of them being a total loss. Maria and her crew were all fine, but the journey was over.
Despite the setback, Parker was back in the race, continuing her journey, and overtook the lead woman cyclist just two days later.
And all of this is just a drop in the pool of RAAM. There's so many stories to each individual, and while it is competitive, it something more. It's a race, true, but it is a race of heart.