Where to start with the incredible Leah Goldstein? The 52-year-old Canadian has lived a remarkable life. A world champion kickboxer at 17, she was the first female elite commando instructor in the Israeli Defence Force, a Krav Maga specialist, and an undercover Special Forces terrorism and violent crime officer… and that’s before all of her endurance sports accolades!
After leaving the army, Leah enjoyed an impressive professional cycling career for more than a decade until a near-death crash in 2005 saw her hospitalised for several months. Doctors told her she would never race again, but, incredibly, she proved them wrong.
Earlier this year, Leah became the first woman in history to take the outright solo win at Race Across America (RAAM), a 3000-mile, single-stage cycle race from America’s west to east coast, dubbed the toughest bike race in the world. She completed it in 11 days, 3 hours and 3 minutes, enduring searing temperatures of up to 50°C and accumulating 175,000ft of elevation. The second-place rider crossed the line almost 16 hours later.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Leah, who is also a motivational speaker and the author of No Limits (which documents her incredible life and career) at the start of August. Our phone conversation focused on her historic RAAM win, her preparation, her sleep schedule, and everything it took to cross the line as 2021’s outright winner. Enjoy!
This year was your third RAAM experience…
Yeah. My first RAAM was in 2011 at the end of my 13-year pro cycling career. RAAM was something that had always been on my bucket list. Then I retired for seven years – when you live out of a bag for many years [as a pro cyclist], you just need a mental break. RAAM was always in the background, and I was like, I gotta do it again, I didn’t do my best! So I had my comeback in 2019 when I turned 50. My goal was to be a bit faster that year. I did a practice race in Nevada called Silver State in 2018 and I ended up setting a record so I was like, OK, this old lady can still ride her bike.
Did you have a goal for this year’s RAAM?
Our goal was to do the 10-day record, however, the conditions were unbelievable, the hottest RAAM had ever experienced. It was 50°C, not just through Arizona and California, but right across to Maryland. You couldn’t really race as hard as you wanted to. It was more survival – who could survive the heat the most. Yes, I won [outright] and it was great, but the time was disappointing, so now I’ve got to do it again! I can’t wait too long; if I was 35 or even 40, I could take 2-3 years off, but I don’t really have my age as my friend now. I feel like I have the next 3 or 4 years to really compete against the top riders.
How did you prepare for RAAM this year?
In 2020, RAAM was cancelled but I continued to train like the race was happening and we did a practice race in Canada; we replicated the first 4 days of RAAM just to keep me on the ball and make sure that the training was up to par, because there’s a lot of little things we had to fix, and the crew had to fix… navigational errors. If you think about how many times you make a wrong turn, even if it’s just a couple of minutes if you do that 2 or 3 times a day, you’ve got a few hours there.
I hear you did most of your RAAM training indoors on your turbo/bike trainer?
I live in Canada, so I had no choice! I’d sit on the trainer for up to 14 hours in one session. I don’t listen to music or look at my phone – I don’t have anything as a distraction. I look at my cadence, my heart rate and the blank wall in front of me. It’s kind of what RAAM is like – when you’re going through Kansas, all you see is road. I can kind of replicate what I’m going to experience during RAAM; those hard mental times when you don’t have a lot of mental stimulation. The trainer is a good training tool for safety reasons too because at night time you can get drunk drivers, and I’ve had some bad experiences with people throwing things at me. It’s a huge tool for me, a great asset to have.
What’s the balance of your indoor training vs. outdoor training in summer?
I would say even in the summertime with the nicer weather, I’ll train 50/50 on the trainer and the other half outside. When you’re doing intervals, you have no distractions and can focus on what you’re doing. In a race, you have road closures, but when you’re going up to 40kmph [in training] you have to be careful on open roads just for safety reasons.
What do you think about when you’re on the bike trainer facing a blank wall for hours?
I’ll replicate a workout, like a mountain climbing stage for example. I’ll do 3 x one hour of climbing in a heavy gear or something like that, then I’ll go flat, kind of steady. So I’ll just have a route in my head, like a GPS. I just focus on that and my time. I’m pretty good at replicating my outdoor cadence and power, heart rate and all that stuff. It’s a comfort thing too, not having to deal with traffic.
In previous RAAMs you experienced Shermer’s Neck, where the neck muscles totally collapse. Tell us about the special system you created to help avoid this during the race…
So Shermer’s Neck is when your neck muscles completely give out and your head drops. You can’t move your head and your chin is rested on your chest. I’d never had any neck issues before, but when I got Shermer’s Neck on day 3 of RAAM 2011, in order to ride my bike, I had to put my chin on the palm of one hand to hold my head up. The other hand was steering my bike!
My crew were like, you can’t do this for the entire race. So they shaved my head from ear to ear, then using the remainder of the hair on top of my head, they took a tensor bandage and French braided it into my hair. They pulled my head back with it and tied it to the back of my heart rate monitor. Kind of like a bobblehead. Crazy as it may sound, it got me across the country. It was excruciatingly painful because I was already in Shermer’s neck – the muscles had already collapsed. But it really works, so we shave me from ear to ear, tie it back and I start every RAAM race that way. You have to have a good head of hair to do it!
This year you also prepared in training to avoid this issue?
I did some very specific, intense strength exercises for the neck and traps and upper back. People who have had a lot of whiplash and crashes are prone to Shermer’s Neck because their muscles are already damaged and you know, as a pro racer, I had so many crashes, I should be dead by now! The strength programmes I did really helped because I didn’t have any issues this time.
You do well on very little sleep. Is this down to your military training or your genetics?
From what I understand, sleep [resistance] can’t be trained – you either have it or you don’t. I think it’s a genetic thing, but for sure my military training helps. When I was in the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) as an example, we would go on 30-40km treks with our 50-60lb gear, we’d come back after 22 hours and be told we have 6 hours to rest. Five minutes later, another commander would come and tell us we’re repeating what we just did.
Tell us about your sleep strategy for RAAM this year?
I rode the first 40 hours without sleep, and then I took my first 3-hr sleep. And then I rode for 24 hours and went down for 3 hours. That pattern went on for about 4 days, and then the last quarter of the race, we cut it down to 90 minutes [of sleep] because there was a possibility I could win this thing.
Did you hallucinate this year?
Oh yes, you’re always hallucinating. Sometimes it can be really dangerous, but I’m better at controlling it these days. In 2019, our mistake was cutting my sleep on the second night to 90-minutes, so the hallucinations almost became violent. I saw a black leopard leap out towards me, so I veered across to the other side of the road, which can be very dangerous. I can’t look around now because if I look at the cars, scenery, people, they’ll turn into something! I just look at the road ahead so whatever I see, it’s just in front of me. I saw little skulls this time and people’s heads floating around. You know you’re hallucinating – you know it’s not real.
Going back to the heat, how hard was it riding in the heatwave?
Everyone’s in the same boat, but that kind of heat was just… I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. I could feel my eyeballs burning. At one point, I saw 50°C on the little speedometer on my bike. But it was also the heat from the asphalt, you know what I mean? You could have fried a steak on it, it was that hot.
Only three people finished the race, it was that excruciating. It was up to 51°C. One of the other racers’ Garmins started to melt. So you can imagine the toll on the body. I got burns and welts right through my jersey on the back. My back was blistered. That was just the intensity of the heat, burning right through the clothing. It was unbelievable, crazy-hot. So that was the struggle.
What strategies did your crew use to try and keep you cool?
We used an ice sock – basically a long tube sock filled with ice – and wrapped it around my neck. We also used something called frog skin, which is a really cool layer that you put on your body and it’s supposed to keep you cool for 2 hours – but it lasted 15 minutes! Instead of wearing a cycling jersey, I wore a men’s cotton shirt that we sliced because cotton holds water more. But again, I was dry in 7 minutes.
I also had my crew leapfrog ahead up the road every 5-6K with a bottle of ice water that I could douse over my head. And that was the pattern of how I had to ride – so you can imagine how much slower you are, stopping to do that. At points where I missed the crew’s water, you start to get overheated, you get a chill and you know that you’re in trouble. People ended up in the hospital, people pulled out during that phase. Even the teams, where they rotate riders, pulled out because it was unbearable. I can’t even explain it to you. Put yourself in a sauna with your bike trainer and wear a jacket!
Were you able to fuel properly in the heat? I imagine you didn’t feel like eating?
Oh yeah. I couldn’t eat anything for 3 days. I primarily like to use liquid nutrition as opposed to solid because with solid, the body has to digest it when it’s already fighting to keep you cool or to give energy to the heart or to the muscles. So I usually like to keep it 70% liquid, 30% solid. At these temperatures, you don’t feel like eating so that was a challenge, but you can get enough calories through liquids. I’m sponsored by Hammer and use their nutrition drinks and electrolyte drinks.
Nutrition wasn’t an issue – because of my past experience doing long races, we had that dialled in.
When you’re riding hard, that makes it difficult to eat too though. Smoothies are good and we have Boost or Ensure, which is what a lot of seniors eat. You get it from the pharmacy. It works for me because it’s quick calories in small amounts. It’s quick… and it’s gross!
Riding for 11 days you must have had saddle sores. I assume there’s no way around them?
Oh my god, yeah. I don’t care what you’re riding or what kind of saddle you have, you’re getting saddle sores in RAAM. It’s unavoidable! It’s a matter of controlling it and trying to prevent it from getting worse. The conditions – hot, moist – didn’t help. Kit changes are super-important but what worked for us in the past is, when I went down for my big rest, they’d put me in Epsom salts. They’d have me in a bucket of them, so any wounds or open cut would get sizzled. It stings like a son of a gun, but it works.
At the end [this year], we didn’t have time to douse me in Epsom salts, so we used lidocaine, I changed shorts, and you just take the pain – what more can I tell you?! This year, the last few days were pretty painful. Lidocaine is a numbing cream, so we just numb the crap out of it. You pay for it after the race – you don’t sit for a couple of days!
What gets you through the tough moments?
I’m just focused on the goal and getting through the next 24 hours of riding. I also focus on communication with my crew and getting as many details as possible, so there are no surprises. They’ll tell me, ‘In 5km you have a 20-kilometre climb, you’ll have winds to your back’ etc., so mentally you can kinda prepare for that. It helps you to have a little goal, like the next time station is 50K or 100K, where you can stop, change your clothes, stuff like that. Also knowing where the other riders are. The stats of where you are in the race, how many kilometres to the finish, helps you get through it.
What kit do you swear by for RAAM?
I’m sponsored by Pactimo who gave me clothing tailored to the conditions, such as ultra-light wind jackets and specific gloves with extra gel to prevent your hands from going numb. And then Hammer Nutrition, I used their electrolyte pills and the Anti-Fatigue Caps which help with the lactic acid. AMP was a lotion that helps get rid of lactic acid in your legs; you just rub it in. I’m really sceptical – if it doesn’t work, I’m not going to stand behind it. But I swear by all my sponsors 110%.
Who are your sponsors?
My sponsors are Pactimo (clothing), KHS (bike), Shimano (components, shoes and wheels), D-Curve (helmet and eyewear), Bryton (GPS computer for my bike), Hammer Nutrition, Firma Wear (compression clothing), The Weather App (weather and wind conditions), AMP and Icy Tek coolers.
Keep up with Leah’s racing and training via her social media: www.instagram.com/goldstein_leah_ and www.facebook.com/leahgoldstein1. You can find out more about Leah’s career, achievements and speaking opportunities via her website www.leahgoldstein.com.