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Team PHenomenal Hope and the Race of Our Lives: Racing Across America for Pulmonary Hypertension

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Patricia George, MD
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
Pittsburgh, PA, USA

I wake up. No idea what town or state I'm in. The RV bed is not moving, which means I have somewhere between 30 minutes and maybe 2 hours before I ride. That's my only job, to get ready and ride my bike. I open my eyes and jump out of bed. Uniform on, helmet, shoes, race radio, sunglasses, and meet the crew outside. We're at the racer-crew transition point, waiting for our teammates to get in and our 6-hour shift to begin.

Beginnings. The journey began over two years ago, when my friends and I tossed around the idea to race in the Race Across America (RAAM), the most challenging bike race in the world. The idea of Team PHenomenal Hope was inspired, in part, by the 2010 Mount Kilimanjaro climb, and feeling the impact of what happens when people devote their passions and do something epic to lift up the pulmonary hypertension (PH) community. Team PHenomenal Hope was formed to serve as a lightning rod for the PH community, using endurance sports to raise both awareness about pulmonary hypertension and funds to help find a cure. Partnering with the Pulmonary Hypertension Association (PHA) and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, our effort expanded beyond a small group of bike racers into a grassroots movement across the country.

It's not just about the bike. It's not even about the race. It's much bigger than that. From the start, our team was grounded in the cause and those for whom we raced. Attending the 2012 PHA International Conference with teammates and participating in support groups from Pittsburgh to California and even Hawaii, Ryanne Palermo, Stacie Truszkowski, Anne-Marie Alderson and I were embraced by the PH community. As we were preparing for the race of our lives, people living with PH were in their own race, as well. PHA launched a campaign called Race of Our Lives, in which patients joined with us in Unity Miles events, setting their own goals and creating their own events to raise awareness about PH. All along the way patients inspired us to wake up and ride at 5 AM, or commute by bike to work in the cold weather; to do whatever it took to fulfill our promise.

"Congratulations, you have just registered for the Race Across America, the most challenging bike race in the world." Training culminated in a final 6-month build to race day. From December through June we added more extensive weekend rides and did interval training and cross-training during the week. Our crew chief Kate Bennett, and crew member Peter Kochupura, planned the details - from crew recruitment and vehicle logistics to training the crew for the race ahead. While it is the racers who would be in the spotlight, the truth was that the crew would be the ones that got our team across the country by driving and navigating, providing nutrition, fixing flats and other mechanical duties, and - most importantly - improvising. Think NASCAR and MacGuyver, but moving at 18 miles per hour day-and-night across the entire United States in about one week.

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From the United States...riding for the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, Team PHenomenal Hope! The race began beachside in Oceanside, California. With all the prep work done, our strategy set and pre-race TV interviews behind us, it was time to race. All our preparation came down to the race that was about to begin. I remember feeling the enthusiasm of members of the PH community, hearing cowbells at the starting line, wondering how we would fare in the 100+ degree desert heat, or in the windy plains of Kansas, knowing that in RAAM, anything that can happen will happen.

Seven days seven hours and fifteen minutes. Our team and especially the crew worked the hardest I've ever seen people work, day and night. Together. Racing RAAM is one thing, but the sleep deprivation, the 24/7 race and constant movement of it, living in the narrow confines of a moving RV, the fact that there are lives on the road in the headlights of the support vehicles with a radio connection between the car and cyclist - well, high-pressure is an understatement. Yet our team thrived in this environment, truly working together despite the toll of cumulative sleep deprivation. In just over one week we: climbed Mt. Palomar; descended the Glass Elevator 3000 feet into the dry sauna-like heat of Borrego Springs; powered up the Yarnell Grade in Arizona; learned that sunrise starts with hint of a blue glow on the Eastern horizon around 4:30AM; experienced sun illuminating pink rocks in the Utah desert; flew on a tailwind through Monument Valley, 35 mph on the flat; climbed the Rockies into Durango and continued up Wolf Creek Pass, with a late night descent through crosswinds and tunnels; kept the bike rubber-side-down through treacherous crosswinds of La Veta Pass; survived 100-degree humid heat in Kansas, overcoming RV mechanical failures including loss of air conditioning; were surprised by a spontaneous patient pep rally in Bloomington, Indiana; rode through a treacherous thunderstorm in West Virginia; climbed the steep Appalachians; rode through solemn and beautiful Gettysburg and ultimately to the finish line at the dock in Annapolis. When we crossed the finish at 10:30PM, we were surrounded by family, friends and PHriends near and far through a live Skype broadcast between the dock and PHA Conference members crowded into a hotel bar in Indianapolis.

Keep moving. Keep going. Don't stop. The most important strategy in ultra-endurance racing, especially team racing, is to keep moving, keep going, and whatever you do, don't stop. There is a race in front of you, literally 3000 miles to go from the starting line, and ultra-racing makes you disconnect a bit and plug into the race, into the moment. Not only did we feel the satisfaction of completing the Race Across America, but truly knew that this was the effort of a team much bigger than our small team from Pittsburgh. It was that driving force, that excitement of racing with the vibrant PH community that I will never forget. It is that same positive vibe that we look to build upon as Team PHenomenal Hope grows in 2015. This next year will bring new endurance athletes to the team. These people will push their limits in races all over the map, while dedicating their training and racing to people who work to breathe and live with PH. We hope that this team will continue to energize the endurance community and PH community to race with us in this race towards a cure for PH. We hope you will join us.

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Join us in this race against PH! To learn more about Team PHenomenal Hope, please check out our website: http://teamphenomenalhope.org.

To see the Race Across America Team PHenomenal Hope documentary on YouTube, go here: http://youtu.be/h7OtXPP5U9A

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interst to disclose.

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