Today, Rob White crossed the Race Across America (RAAM) finish line in Annapolis, MD. Before the start of the non-stop 3000 mile bicycle race, I explored the question of who is Rob White? I thought that a RAAM racer story was a type of lifeboat tale–interesting because the listener could wonder about his or her own behavior in a similar situation. I still think RAAM holds interest for this reason. More and more as I’ve watched Rob race, though, I’ve begun to be haunted by a different question:
Who is RAAM?
For 11 days, Rob White slept next to nothing and hurt near unceasingly. This morning–his last morning of the race–he fell and broke his collarbone. 2 days ago, he pulled one of his quadriceps–a crucial muscle for every pedal stroke. Rob suffered through the last portion of the race in excruciating pain.
He said it took everything in him not to cry.
Throughout much of these last miles, it rained.
I don’t understand. I don’t understand the destruction of body and mind RAAM racers put themselves through willfully. I’ve tried and tried to understand this race through the lens of an American–a college kid from the comfortable middle class. But I think I’ve been looking at it all wrong. The Race Across America, I realize now, is an essentially Russian race. Its glorification of geographical vastness and suffering endured reminds me of Dostoevsky. Its way of peeling away racers’ pretensions, of turning their thoughts to God, screams of Tolstoy.
It is another Russian, though, who most embodied the spirit of RAAM: Ivan the Terrible. That 16th century Muscovite prince–the first tsar–was a great warrior (the conqueror of Kazan and Astrakhan) a reformer, and a devout Christian. He also killed his son and heir–supposedly with his own hands–and set a bloody precedent in Russian history by perpetrating its first great purge: the slaughter of the boyars by his black-cloaked secret police. Ivan, in many ways, was the progenitor of imperial Russia. He established many of the lasting traditions of the state–and shaped its despotic, brutal, but essentially spiritual character. (1)
His epithet, in Russian, is Grozny. The word does not just mean evil or bad, as the English translation would suggest. Instead, according to Vladimir Dahl, the 19th century Russian lexicographer, it has a more complex meaning. It means terrifying, but also awesome and magnificent. (2)
That is how I understand the race, now. RAAM the Grozny. Breaker of the strongest humans. Cruel and awe-inspiring. RAAM is capable of shaping the world for better, perhaps, but at great cost.
That is the race that Rob White finished today. He studied it, prepared for it, and, most importantly, did it with a good motivation: to raise money for brain cancer research through 3000 Miles to a Cure. He was cognizant of the suffering it would put him through–and dedicated his own willful suffering to those who endure pain without a choice. And Rob’s suffering during this grozny race did good. It inspired people and gave them hope:
And it raised money ($27,000 at the time of this posting) that will help cure brain cancer. Money that will help to heal someday those who cannot now be healed.
Rob faced RAAM Grozny with love and endurance.
It was terrible, but magnificent, too.