Nicki Boyd had signed up for the 2020 edition of Race Across America (RAAM) and her motivation for completing the challenge was borne out of a story of devastation and inspiration as Nicki's good friend and age-group triathlete, Claire Danson, was left paralysed following a collision with a tractor while riding her bike in August 2019.
Claire, who won her age group at the European Championships just two months prior to her accident, has set her sights on retraining as a paratriathlete and qualifying for Team GB at the 2024 Paralympic Games.
So, Nicki is racing RAAM to help Claire raise money towards her journey to the Paris Games.
Nicki is no stranger to feats of endurance and we caught up with her to talk about motivation, mindset and training after the coronavirus pandemic caused RAAM - an epic 3,000-mile race across 12 US states - to be postponed until 2021...
Hi Nicki, thanks for taking the time to chat to us. It's not an easy place to begin but if we could start with Claire's accident and her remarkable response to adversity...
She is remarkable. Let’s not kid ourselves, she has lots of dark times as well, but that resilience and finding her 'star' to focus on is what keeps her going.
I’m sure she panics about losing her identity and her tribe (in terms of who she trains with), and hopefully we’re showing her that we're not going anywhere.
And how has Claire's positive mindset impacted on your own approach to training for RAAM?
If ever I’m thinking ‘f&%k this, I don’t want to train or do RAAM’, I think of Claire and what she’d give to be able to cycle again. It changes my thought process completely.
I actually told Claire that I’m using her as inspiration while also swearing at her a lot during the course of my training.
I’d be lying if I said I’d never thought of doing RAAM before Claire’s accident but it just happened that a number of factors came together.
I ended up doing a bit more cycling a few years ago after I snapped my ACL and I did reasonably well at the RAW [Race Across the West - and when Nicki says she "did reasonably well", she actually won the ladies' solo race in 2017], which qualified me for RAAM.
It must have been very difficult to hear the news of Claire's accident...
Claire had her accident when I was travelling back to California for a university reunion at Stanford and it hit my really, really hard on a few levels - obviously she’s a friend so there’s the empathy and compassion part of it, particularly as she’s such a bubbly and optimistic person, and I reflected that back on myself and was thinking that this could happen to us at any moment.
Life can change in a heartbeat.
So, for people like me who are so reliant on training and competition for mental health, physical health, well-being, socialisation, it hits you doubly hard.
I’m not far off 40 so I was thinking ‘f&*K I’m getting old’ and that pushed me into thinking that I need to make time for things and prioritise.
If I get hit by a bus in a few months' time and I’m on my deathbed looking back at my life, what am I going to be proud of?
I run my own company and I’m passionate about my work, but will I look back and wish I’d worked a bit harder or will I look back and consider that I’ve taken on an enormous challenge and raised a lot of money for a cause that’s so important to a good friend of mine?
I think the answer is pretty clear.
So, Claire’s accident tipped me over into wanting to do RAAM and it remains a strong motivator to carry on and do it in 2021.
As races and events were being postponed around the world due to coronavirus, it probably became clear that RAAM was going to have to be pushed back. It must have still been tough news to hear, so how did the announcement affect you on a personal level and how's it impacted on your training?
There was a bit of wallowing from me when it was first cancelled and then there’s been a period of trying to get myself ‘re-motivated’.
I’m trying to focus on the positives and re-frame all of the work that I’ve done, rather than looking at the fact I’ve half-killed myself over the last 6 months trying to juggle a massive training load and all the logistical organisation of RAAM with a full-on day job.
The key is I’ve got a good base to work from and that is not wasted. Another 12 months will enable me to put myself in an even better position for the 2021 edition of the race.
I'm still training, but for the time being I've added a bit more variety to preserve my physical and mental sanity!
I’ve got my trainers out and I'm doing more running for the first time since December, as well as a decent amount of yoga and strength work.
Towards the end of the year, I'll shift back to focusing on cycling and ramping up the mileage.
For most athletes, finding new ways to train has been a necessity during lockdown and I understand you've become something of a convert to indoor training?
Indoor training on the turbo with TrainerRoad has always been a feature of my training - it's very efficient for high intensity workouts - but I've done more indoors and added Zwift into the mix, which is great for longer and (virtual) social rides with friends.
My RAAM coach has got athletes all over the world, so we do virtual group rides together, and my triathlon coaches, Raya Hubbell and Will Usher at Precision Coaching, have been quite innovative with their training and virtual group rides too.
For example, last weekend we did a 90km handicapped team time trial event on Zwift with ~40 athletes and each group connected on a Discord voice channel - it was incredible!
I do think the social element of this 'virtual training' is critical, so thank goodness for the technology.
I see that there's a Virtual RAAM taking place when the original event was due to get underway in June, with riders allowed up to 12 days to complete the 3,000 miles. Is that something you were tempted by or do you have other challenges in mind?
I had the idea for a Virtual RAAM a few months ago, but it's another one of my coach's athletes who's executing on the idea.
I’m not going to do virtual RAAM but I’m thinking about doing Virtual RAW, which is a three-day affair.
I see they’ve limited you to cycling 20 hours a day, although when you’re riding it in real life there'll be days when I'll be doing more than 20 hours a day!
My coach has suggested I train for a 12- or 24-hour world record where you can do it in a velodrome or on an outdoor course. If you’re going to train for something like that, you need to be ‘all in’ with your head.
It would obviously be cool to go for a world record but I've decided against it as I think it’s more important that I focus on my sanity during the next few months, particularly as the first six months of 2021 will involve a gazillion hours on the bike in preparation for RAAM.
Unlike most RAAM competitors, I'm not a full-time athlete, so I have to be careful not to get carried away with things like this!
How have your past endurance experiences shaped your approach to RAAM?
Well, I've got 20 years' worth of competitive and endurance sport in my body.
The first ultra event I did was the Marathon des Sables back in 2012, which is on foot but there are relevant mental elements to that challenge. While branded as "the toughest foot race on earth", I can tell you it pales into insignificance for me compared to the challenge of RAAM!
There is a huge amount of physical preparation to be done in terms of hours on the bike and strength work, but the mental component may even be a larger component.
The sleep deprivation that comes with cycling 20 hours or more a day for 12 days is overwhelming - I’ll be hallucinating within 3 days and am told I'm unlikely to remember much at all after 6 days.
There are so many things that go wrong - nutrition is another big one - and I’ll be totally reliant on my crew for everything. Except pedalling of course!
I’ll be doing some big back-to-back training days and multi-day races ahead of RAAM in June 2021, but I think the most relevant experience will be RAW as the course for that race is the same as the first third of the RAAM, but more so because the extreme conditions are difficult to replicate anywhere else - 1000 miles and 50k feet of climbing in ~72 hours with three and a half hours of sleep.
Sounds amazing (and painful!). So, what would be an ideal scenario with your training during the next 12 months?
I really ramped up my cycling in December of last year and dropped everything else, so my intent is to do the same this year.
I’ll give myself time to do a mixture of things, such as running, yoga and triathlons, up until December and then really kick back in with the cycling at the end of the year to give myself a good six months of solid time on the bike.
I’m aiming to replicate what I did in the build-up to this year’s cancelled event but with it hopefully going ahead in 2021!
When the cycling does kick back in for me, I'm limited to doing big miles at the weekend because of the nature of my job, then in the week I commute every day on my bike and do two additional hard turbo sessions and some strength work.
I’ll also do long weekend and five-day camps once a month from February through May to act as simulation rides.
And how do you approach nutrition for such an extreme multi-day event?
Nutrition is a big challenge as I’m trying to get enough calories, liquids and salt in and avoid getting into a deficit.
I’m aiming to take on 250-300 calories an hour for 12 days, which is an inordinate amount of calories to get in your body.
So, getting that right and getting my hydration right in hot conditions is going to be really important.
I do a lot of preparation to get all of the fundamentals in place and then I’ll largely be relying on my support crew, who will be making sure I get my calories, fluids and sodium on board, so all I have to focus on is pedalling.
With the support crew, there must be a huge logistical operation to organise everyone? How do you go about putting a team together?
As you say, as well as the training, there’s a massive logistical element with recruiting crew, bookings hotels and rental cars, sorting flights, testing bikes, a never ending kit list and plenty of other things.
So, having done that once, I’ll be better equipped, and that will relieve some of the burden of organising logistics again next year… hopefully!
I’ve got my crew sorted which is a huge relief. It’s a massive ask for someone to take 2 weeks out of their life, unpaid, to drive across the US, live in cramped conditions, limited to one small bag of personal items, eat crappy food, be sleep deprived…
So beyond some specific skills (masseuse, mechanic), you generally want people with a great attitude who are extremely low maintenance, flexible, adaptable, and know they’re not signing up for a holiday by doing this!
It must be important to have confidence in the team you're taking out there and who are you leaning on to help prepare you for RAAM?
I talk to my coach a lot, I’ve watched two or three documentaries, and I’ve read Christoph Strasser’s book as he’s won it six times.
My crew chief has experience of carrying out the role for other people; Janet Christiansen, who’s participated in RAAM 4 times and completed twice, brings a huge amount of knowledge as a racer and is the second most successful female competitor ever. My friend and masseuse from RAW is also part of my crew.
That all gives me a lot of confidence.
It’s quite common to not finish on your first attempt.
That last part of training needs to be focused more on the mental side of things than the physical, so in the final few months, getting a bit more sleep can be more important than doing extra training.
I've been working with a Sports Psychologist to help process what I was feeling and I will probably work with them in the build-up to the race in 2021 as well.
And what are your own expectations for the challenge ahead?
Most people who do RAAM are full-time athletes and can dedicate full-time to it, which is quite intimidating when you know most people are training more than you.
But I’ve built up a strong support network and am confident in my mental strength following my previous endurance success. My coach has done RAAM 10 times and he has a very high level of confidence that I can complete it, which helps too.
I don’t think I’ve ever gone into an event before where I’ve been worried about finishing because I’ve always got to the start line knowing I can finish and the focus is on where I finish.
Whereas with RAAM, because of the length of it and the external factors that are outside of my control, there is this ‘can I even finish it?’ monkey in my head.
It's a new concept to me and it's interesting psychologically to find what my limits are.
Superb, good luck Nicki! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us and we'll be sure to stay in touch to help with the hydration side of things as you ramp up your training later this year.
If you would like to donate towards Nicki's Solo RAAM Challenge, visit her #DoItForDanson Fundraiser Page and you can also check out the #doitfordanson hashtag on social media channels.