by Faye Rapoport
In ultra cycling, the question is not how to prevent foot injuries. When you’re riding for 21-22 hours a day, over an 8-day course known as the entire United States, your feet are going to hurt. Period.
For cyclists like George Thomas, the pain is worth it. Thomas’ journey toward competing in the grueling Race Across America (RAAM) began in 1984, when his sense of self worth was ruthlessly tested after a hit-and-run accident left him with epilepsy. Haunted by grand mal seizures for years following the accident, Thomas turned to cycling to overcome the affliction. Today, he has tamed his seizures and dispelled the myths commonly associated with epilepsy.
As a competitive cyclist, Thomas has completed the RAAM, the 3,000 mile transcontinental cycling journey, five times. Considered by exercise physiologists to be the most arduous competition in the world, the RAAM provides the ultimate test of a rider’s toughness, determination and resilience.
Thomas has completed the race solo, on a tandem bike, and this year will compete as part of a two-person relay.
But how does he tolerate the physical punishment, especially to his feet? Read on.
Foot.com: How did you end up involved in a highly demanding sport like ultra cycling?
Thomas: I really got involved with cycling after I got hit by a car. I’d been a runner most of my life, and I couldn’t run anymore because of my leg injuries. A bike was a very integral part of my rehab and I did a lot of cycling on an indoor trainer and enjoyed it. Then I took the bike outside and started riding, further and further, entered a race, and loved it and found a lot more success in cycling than I ever had in running.
Foot.com: When did you decide to get involved in ultra cycling?
Thomas: It’s so specific in my head. I was sitting outside of a room waiting for a friend of mine to come out of class at college, and there were some magazines on the sofa. I picked one up and it was about bicycling. I didn’t ride at the time, but there was an article about something called the Great American Bike race [the name was later changed to the Race Across America], and pictures of guys cycling in the dark. And I thought, that looks really cool, I would love to do something like that sometime.
And in a roundabout way I came back to that after rehab and everything I went through to start riding a bike. There was just something about it. It’s hard to explain, but it’s about being out on your bike at night, riding in the lights of a follow-up car. It sounded like a real adventure and it added a different dimension to bike riding that you don’t find everyday. That’s my favorite part of ultra cycling now, that I’m alive at night. I absolutely love it.
Foot.com: With that kind of time on a bike, what footwear do you use to protect your feet?
Thomas: The biggest problems that ultra cyclists have is something called “hot foot,” because the pressure from your foot pushing down on the small pressure point of the pedal, 21 hours a day, 8 days in a row, it’s just brutal. Last time I did RAAM in 2002, my toes were getting pushed up against the end of the shoe. I had some problems with my Achilles tendon in the past and a doctor recommended putting some small heel lifts in my shoe to relieve pressure on the tendon. It did work very well, so in RAAM 2002 I thought if one heel lift worked, maybe two or three would be better. But it caused my feet to slide forward, resulting in bruising on my toes, and I rode about 2500 miles of the race after cutting off the fronts of the shoes.
One year, even though I normally wear size 10 shoes, I took size 12 shoes with me on the ride just to relieve my feet in case of swelling. The swelling was so severe, though, that the 12s were too small, and I ended up losing toenails. Obviously, in this sport, proper care of the feet is very important.
Foot.com: Do orthotics help?
Thomas: When I did the race in 2000,I had lifts in the shoes, and that helped a lot. A custom orthotic in the shoe was wonderful. For me it was a big comfort issue, because there was no slipping, it held my foot in place, was very comfortable, and alleviated bad pressure points.
Foot.com: What type of socks do ultra cyclists tend to use?
Thomas: I just use a CoolMax thin cycling sock. You don’t want your feet (this is going to be a very at odds statement) but if your feet are swelling you can put them in ice to help it, but you don’t want your feet to be wet. So you’ve really got to make sure they are dry. CoolMax socks are thin, light and they don’t hold moisture.
Foot.com: It sounds like it’s a real challenge to keep your feet pain-free during these races.
Thomas: Basically, you’re gonna hurt your feet. I was used to abuse from ski boots, before I did this, but this is a whole different thing.
Foot.com: What about blisters?
Thomas: Blistering can also be a problem. Your feet are your connection to the bike, and when you start having a foot problem, you never have time to recover. If you try to adjust it by moving another part of your foot or leg, all you are going to do is develop more problems from that adjustment.
So, blisters? You just hope you don’t get them. It helps to change your socks on a regular basis, keep your feet dry, use baby powder on them. I’ve seen a lot of people put donuts and things in between their toes, I did that in 2002 to keep them from rubbing and that helped a lot. And I put padding on the balls of my feet to alleviate hot foot, but if you’re off in terms of where you put your pads, you can make it worse. That’s creating pressure points.
The truth is, I have really ugly feet!
Foot.com: How long does it take your feet to recover from something like RAAM?
Thomas: I’ve had numb toes for up to 3 to 4 months after a race was over. But no permanent damage. I guess nerves grow back, ha ha.
Foot.com: With all of the pain that goes into this, what makes it worth it to you to keep doing it?
Thomas: I can only explain it this way. Here is this event that you put so much time and effort into, it’s a year you take to prepare. So much of the race is preparation, putting your crew together, raising money, getting product sponsors. It’s your life, and then you do your race and it’s over. So then what do you do? It’s so hard to find any other athletic event that compares to that.
RAAM, for someone like me who could never do the Tour de France, is all consuming. It puts a purpose into your training like nothing you’ve ever done. I love the race.
There’s a quote from Bjorn Borg from after he won Wimbledon that sums up RAAM to me.
“There’s a hollow feeling when the challenge of reaching a goal is gone. The goal now is to stay there. It’s like looking for excellence in isolation.”
For more on George Thomas and his book, Going the Distance, visit:www.teamvelowear.com
Going the Distance is the compelling saga of Thomas’ quest to prove himself physically and emotionally after a car accident left him with life-threatening epileptic seizures. The story is told vividly through Thomas’ eyes as he pedals 2,911 miles in the bicycle Race Across America.