(Team KYS thanks Anoochan Pandey for his first contribution as a volunteer writer.)
Undeterred by the thought of disappointment, Samim Rizvi sat at his desk and googled ‘The toughest sporting event in the World’ and Race Across America popped up. A transcontinental bike race across America that spans 3000 miles and involves climbing approximately 175,000 feet—which must be finished in twelve days—Race Across America is no ordinary event. The qualification round alone requires cycling more than 600 km in under 24 hours!
When he voiced his ambitions, his friends merely shrugged and said that it was impossible. He looked them in the eye and said, “Watch me!” Such is the grit, determination, and endurance that characterises this athlete and long distance cyclist- Samim Rizvi. He went on to become the first Indian to complete the Race Across America.
For The Love Of Wheels
Samim’s love for his biking began when he was a child. He says, “It emanated from watching my elder brothers cycle around the crowded bylanes of Mumbai. I learned to ride at a very young age and by the time I was 10 years old, I used to cycle from Bombay Central to Borivali and back.”
His love for the sport came to the fore when he moved to a different city, and had the opportunity to rediscover it. He says- “It was when I moved to Bangalore in 1987 that my tryst with long distance cycling really blossomed. I distinctly remember my first bike ride to Nandi Hills. I started from Jayanagar at around 8 pm and reached Nandi Hills around 3 am the next morning.”
Into The Wild
Spending time outdoors has instilled a deep love and respect for nature in Samim. He says, “Being a cyclist who loved to wander off for long rides, I was always close to nature. Having observed the impact of humanity on nature from close quarters, I wanted to raise awareness for curbing pollution and environmental conservation. So in 2002, in a discussion with a couple of my friends, the idea of a long distance awareness run came up. I embraced it and decided to do a run from Bangalore to Bombay. The distance is about 1100 km and the plan was to run about 50 km every day and reach Bombay on the 22nd day, and use the media coverage of the run to raise awareness”.
This was before the days of marathons for a cause, and Samim’s idea may have well been the one that kickstarted the trend. “At that time, there was no market for endurance sports in India. Neither could I find a coach, nor was any media house ready to cover my run! Undeterred by these obstacles, I started training myself for the run. I trained for five years by myself and finally in the year 2007, a day before the run, we got all sponsorships in place.
I embarked on the run on 11th September, 2007 and reached the Gateway of India on the 22nd day as per plan. What didn’t go according to plan was the fact that India won the T20 world cup just then and the media houses could not spare guys to cover the run.” Despite his disappointment in the outcome, he discovered his affinity for long distance running and endurance sports in general. It would stand him in good stead when he undertook his biggest challenge – the Race Across America (RAAM).
His Journey To Race Across America
Samim’s preparations for the race were an integral part of the process. Without these building blocks, there was no foundation for his success. This was a difficult and exhilarating time for him, and he says, “RAAM is correctly referred to as the toughest sporting event in the world as it not only pushes one to the extremes of their physical capability but is also a stern examination of one’s mental fortitude. This time, I was lucky to get a coach online and with his guidance I rigorously trained for three years. The physical endurance training involved biking round trips such as Bangalore – Ooty – Bangalore and Bangalore – Bombay – Bangalore”.
Next, he had to mentally prepare himself for the race, a test of strength like no other.
During RAAM, a cyclist rides an average of 480 km per day and gets about one hour of sleep every day, sometimes less. To prepare myself for the lack of sleep and the monotony I would be facing, I used to lock myself in a completely empty room with bare walls and no furniture. I used to force myself to stay awake and stare on blank walls for 24 hours, fighting boredom, and upon completion of those 24 hours, I used to embark on a Bangalore – Chennai – Bangalore round trip. I did this once or twice every week in the lead up to the race.
Undertaking The Great Race
This time, Samim was ready for the challenge that lay ahead of him, and says, “Equipped with the confidence of quality training and intense preparation I had done, I started RAAM 2011 on June 15th. I had trained so well that I rode non-stop and did not get off my bike in the first 48 hours. But the trouble starts when the body starts getting tired and recovery gets hampered due to lack of sleep. The mind starts losing control over the body and one starts hallucinating”.
Hallucinations are shocking at the best of times, and when they occur at crucial moments, they can be devastating. Samim explains,
It was on day five that this happened to me. I could see a small dwarf running along my bicycle, jumping and giggling, and giving me high fives and such. The next day, there were two of them. As time passed, the number of dwarfs kept increasing. It was on the ninth day that these friendly dwarfs started turning hostile. They grew fangs and started clawing at me. Roadside postboxes started turning into huge monsters who leapt in the middle of the road trying to derail me.
Even the most stalwart of athletes would crumble under such pressure, and Samim experienced a major setback. “Finally, on day 11, when I had ridden about 4500 km, I snapped. I stopped my bike and could not go any further. My crew tried to motivate me but to no avail. The dwarfs had swarmed over the entire road. I could not see the way ahead. I was too tired, the lack of sleep was breaking me from within and I had lost the will to go ahead.”
Finding The Strength To Continue
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there, and Samim found inspiration in an unlikely place. We can thank the Beatles for his rejuvenated hope, he elaborates, “I’m a big Beatles fan and I used to listen to the song ‘Blackbird’ regularly while training. From the second day of the race, there was this black bird that was flying high over my head, sort of leading the way. While the dwarfs had multiplied, this solitary bird had kept hovering over my head, all alone. Just when all seemed lost, the bird came down from the sky, perched itself on my shoulder and told me to go ahead. Suddenly, nothing else mattered. I got on the bike and started peddling furiously. There is this section of the race that is referred to as ‘the Walker’ as the terrain is unfit for cycling and participants get off their bike and walk along. I rode through that and went on to set the fastest time in the last 500 km in the history of RAAM.”
Now as a record-breaking athlete and one of the country’s best long distance and endurance champions, what does Samim Rizvi have to say about his experience, “As with those dwarfs in my race, life will throw you a million seemingly insurmountable challenges. You will face a lot of negativity and self-doubt. All you need to do is to look within and find that one speck of positivity, that one black bird, the one reason that won’t let you quit and keep pedaling till you reach your goal.”