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A Madcap Sprint Across America Becomes a Book

  • Don Metz, of Lyme, N.H., left, and Donald Graham, of Vershire, Vt., crest a steep portion of King Hill in Etna, N.H., on Sept. 29, 2010. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Don Metz, of Lyme, N.H., left, and Donald Graham, of Vershire, Vt., crest a steep portion of King Hill in Etna, N.H., on Sept. 29, 2010. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Don Metz, of Lyme, N.H., left, and Donald Graham, of Vershire, Vt., crest a steep portion of King Hill in Etna, N.H., on Sept. 29, 2010. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
Don Metz (Courtesy photograph)

Don Metz (Courtesy photograph)

Based solely on a reading of his new book and an interview, Don Metz comes across as a guy who does exceptional things without really meaning to.

For example, in More Than a Race, his account of a cross-country bicycle race against the clock, Metz wrote that he and his three teammates set out to break the route record for cyclists of their age, 70. To do that, the team would have to average 18 miles an hour, non-stop for a full week with a vast support crew, several vehicles and no slip ups.

The team did that and more, crossing the country in 6 1/2 days at an average speed of a hair over 19 miles an hour. They shattered the record for their age group, and broke the record for a 60-year-old team by a healthy margin to boot.

“It was a profound experience, if I may go overboard there for a bit,” Metz said by phone from Arlington, Mass. He’s still a legal resident of Lyme, but splits time between the Upper Valley and the Hub, where he is closer to his grandchildren.

The writing of More Than a Race wasn’t unlike the record-setting ride in that Metz exceeded his expectations — he never intended to chronicle his adventure.

“It didn’t enter my mind that I was going to write a book about it,” Metz said. “But it became more and more haunting.”

It was the intensity of his week on and off his bike that stuck with him. “I still find the whole existential question very interesting: Why do people do this?” Metz said.

“I think the closest (answer) for me is the appeal of adventure,” he added. “I didn’t approach it so much as a race as an encounter with the unknown.”

The book was much the same. The race took place in June 2012 and Metz, who at 72 is still a practicing architect, started to think about writing about it four months later. A couple of months thereafter he got down to work.

He didn’t take notes during the grueling race, so to recreate the journey he surrounded himself with maps, team logbooks and data from the race organizers. He also sent a letter to “all the usual suspects,” asking them to write down their personal experiences. He got back about a dozen responses. The book is told largely from Metz’s point of view, but passages from his fellow travelers leaven the narrative with contrary viewpoints, including from Metz’s wife, Melinda Ashley.

“She’s baffled by why anybody would do this,” Metz said.

She has a point. The Race Across America, or RAAM, is no picnic. The RAAM has 2-, 4- and 8-person teams as well as soloists who ride up to 22 hours a day on a fixed route from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md.

For the race, Metz and teammates Michael Patterson, Dave Burnett and Durward “Dur” Higgins would divide into two-man teams. Each pair would take a shift, typically eight or nine hours, and ride it in shifts of 20 to 30 minutes each, a unit Metz calls a “pull.” The frequent exchanges would allow one rider to rest in a van for a few minutes while the other rode as hard as possible.

When the long shift ends, the racers head back to an RV to try to get some sleep before they suit up and do it again. The team was supported by five vehicles: One van to carry a racer, one to follow and protect the racers and a third for the crew chief, and two RVs, one for the racers and one for the crew. Keeping it all straight, following the route and rules correctly and the constant battle with fatigue makes for a madcap week for the four racers and 15 crew members.

Barney Brannen, a Lyme lawyer and bicycling friend of Metz’s who signed on as a crew member, describes the traveling show like this: “Our caravan is so itinerant, never sitting still for more than 3 or 4 hours, it would give a gypsy vertigo.”

The race was eventful from Day One, when the crew had to cart Dave Burnett off to the hospital for intravenous fluids. “Dave’s crisis is what makes this adventure an adventure,” Metz wrote. “Without the unexpected, the RAAM would feel like a week’s worth of tedious math.”

Metz recalls the week’s events down to the fine details of the scenery, his thoughts, both gloomy and bright, and the inevitable mishaps that briefly unnerve but don’t derail the quest. The linear quality of the race gives the book a natural sense of propulsion.

Although this is Metz’s ninth book, it’s his first foray into self-publishing. The book was produced by Mill City Press in Minneapolis, Minn.

At this year’s White River Indie Film Festival, one of a series of programs on “transmedia” centered on Metz’s book and how it might look as an enhanced e-book, replete with maps, photographs and video. The book platform isn’t quite ready, Metz said, but when it is, he might go ahead with an e-book.

In the meantime, the book is available for order through any bookstore. And Metz is still riding his bicycle regularly. Another RAAM is likely out of the question, he said.

“Not for me,” he said. “Plus, I mean, we did such a job, to beat the old record by 27 hours. I don’t think we could do that again.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com.