It’s past midnight, the sky is clear and dotted, and a single cyclist is on the road, surrounded by the vast landscape of the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. A vehicle is looming nearby, but other than the headlights, Chris Huffman is alone among the 53,000 lost souls of the Battle of Gettysburg, a deciding fight during the Civil War. It’s eerie, peaceful, and inspiring, but he speeds past. There’s no time to absorb the scenery when the finish line looms.
Huffman and his three teammates are nearing the end of a seven-day challenge during which they’ve cycled across 3,143 miles, 12 states, three major mountain ranges, four rivers, two deserts, and the Great Plains. They’ve climbed 170,000 feet on bikes, burning upward of 3,000 calories in a single day. The clock has been ticking since June 17—and they’re on track to take first place in their division
How four middle-aged men from the Palm Beaches came to dominate the ultra-endurance competition named Race Across America (RAAM) is a story that has resonated with everyone from family to business associates to recreational athletes wanting to up their game. And to think, winning wasn’t originally part of their game plan.
“We just wanted to have a respectable time,” says Michael Falk, who had the initial idea to race and assembled the team called the Plantagenets. “The people who do this kind of race are endurance athletes. We all said we couldn’t compete with [them].”
Yet on June 25, seven and a half days after they started at Oceanside, California, the Plantagenets crossed the finish line in Annapolis, Maryland, four hours ahead of the second-place team and claimed the top prize in their age group. It wasn’t because they were the best cyclists on the road. “For us, it was a mental game,” Falk says. “I thought to a large extent we’d have to outsmart competitors.”
This challenge—physical, intellectual, and spiritual—was what Falk was seeking as he neared his fifty-fifth birthday. His wife, Annie, recalls the conversation a couple of months prior to the big event: “I heard the first rumblings of ‘My birthday’s coming up, it’s a big one, and I want to do something special this year.’ He had a friend who had done the [RAAM] race and made it sound very doable. Michael got excited—and when he gets excited about something, then that’s it.”
With Annie’s support, Falk pieced together his team and crew. He ran it like a business, choosing a leader, assigning roles, and getting everyone focused on a mission and pulling in the same direction. He chose longtime friend Tim Moran as the 13-person crew leader to hire key support members such as trainers, drivers, a masseuse, and a chef to get across the country as safely and quickly as possible.
For the team, he went first to Chad Wilkinson, 43, “a great athlete who’s also a good friend.” Wilkinson, the co-owner of Centerpoint Construction and a former Marine, had completed several Ironman triathlons and marathons over 15 years. Though not a competitive cyclist, Wilkinson was ready for the challenge.
Falk’s close friend and business partner at Comvest Partners for 25 years, Robert O’Sullivan, 46, was determined to join, even if he wasn’t in prime shape. Falk recalls, “Robert heard me talk about RAAM and said ‘Michael, if you’re doing it, I’m doing it.’”
Moran then introduced Falk to Chris Huffman, 65, the director of service at Braman Motorcars. Despite his age, Huffman was an active athlete who’d been competing for years in running, cycling, and golf, averaging 12,000 miles a year on his bike alone. He would be the Plantagenets’ most experienced cyclist.
Everything was falling into place, yet something was missing. Wanting to add a greater purpose to the endeavor, the Falks decided to include a fundraising component. They fully funded the RAAM expenses, nearing $100,000, through their family foundation so all money raised could benefit three Palm Beach County nonprofits: Opportunity Inc., Palm Beach Police Foundation, and the American Heart Association’s Teaching Gardens.
The training was grueling, Falk admits. He hired a coach and started the intense conditioning three months prior to the race. He rose at 4:30 a.m. and rode two to three hours on weekdays and 50-100 miles on each weekend day. Then there were the intervals. “We had to hold a certain speed and power for 15 to 30 minutes, and do that over and over,” Falk says. “You get to a point where you can’t mentally do it. Then you stop thinking about it and do what you have to do. And after, you’re amazed that you did it.”
This push served them well during the race. “Days two, three, and four were very painful,” Wilkinson says. “I’ve always gone back to a ‘It’s going to hurt no matter what, so embrace that suffering and pain and drive through it’ mentality. As long as you don’t let that snowball into failure, then you can get through it.”
For a week straight, the team endured extreme discomfort. The men faced a strenuous schedule, sleep deprivation (allotted five hours, and that is if they actually fell asleep in the van), lack of visibility at times, driving rain, cold conditions, and a heat index of up to 115 degrees. The relay pairs—Falk and Wilkinson, and Huffman and O’Sullivan—were each assigned to 10-hour shifts. A driver, navigator, and mechanic followed nearby in a van. The riders typically switched every 30 minutes; during particularly intense climbs and conditions, the interval was cut to 15 minutes. In off times, the men strategized, rested, ate, and received Rolfing bodywork, an aggressive and painful deep-tissue massage.
In an endurance race like this, riders can become disoriented, drained of energy, and susceptible to impaired judgment. On another team, a rider got heat stroke and was in a coma. In 2003 and 2005, racers died due to collisions with vehicles. In 2010, a participant became paralyzed from the waist down after being hit by a car. This is why the crew is as important as the team. “As a rider, you have to give up control of making decisions, turn it over to the crew, and trust they are going to take care of your physical and mental health,” says Wilkinson.
With the array of challenges facing them, and a heavy favorite and repeat winner in their category, the team had no expectation to dominate their age group. At the end of day one, the Plantagenets were in third place with a Brazilian team about seven miles ahead. On the second day, the team passed the Brazilians going up a hill. This was a turning point: They saw they had a chance to win, and that changed everything.
By day three, the Plantagenets had a 50-mile lead, but exhaustion kicked in and another group began to close the gap. The team strategized and refined, using their business acumen to regain their advantage. “When you’re making a deal or buying a business or negotiating anything, you have to put yourself in the other person’s place,” says Falk. “You have to figure out what they’re thinking, and that helps you know what to do. You want to win the mind game.”
For the Plantagenets, that meant refocusing and outriding the competition. “I’m sure that team saw they gained so much on us, and they thought they would win,” says Falk. “When they saw we reversed it, when we physically sent that message to them, they were [defeated]. Getting their minds to not think they can win was really important to me. The physical pressure is extraordinary. You can’t really do that, so you have to be tactical. At our age at least.”
For all the men, this was a test of mind over matter. “Winning that race was one of those classic examples of how we had set a self-imposed limit: We thought we had no chance to win,” says Huffman. “My mantra is to be able to exceed self-imposed limits.”
“I’ve never been overly fearful of tough circumstances, but experiencing the extreme physical and mental discomfort of cycling RAAM has substantially reduced my fear of just about anything,” adds Falk. “In the end, you realize we as human beings are resilient.”
It’s been several months since RAAM, and its ripples are still radiating. The Plantagenets’ story inspired so many that they raised more than $400,000 for the three nonprofits—and more support pours in every day. Two of the men, O’Sullivan and Huffman, are considering a RAAM repeat. “My favorite quote, ‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all,’ by Oscar Wilde, kind of sums up what this experience was all about for me,” says O’Sullivan. “I really think it’s made me a better person and I am even seriously thinking about asking my wife for permission to do it again.”
Huffman is 100-percent convinced age really is just a number. There is no chance he will stop living life enthusiastically or stop challenging himself, a lesson this experience has driven home. “I now make a conscious effort every day to more openly express my gratitude,” he says.
For Falk, the realization that any dream—even those that seem unrealistic—can be attained is stronger than ever. “Much that seemed impossible and unpredictable came together perfectly,” he says of the race. “Human life is fraught with challenges, some quite severe. Feeling more confident in my ability to mindfully face these challenges is a blessing this experience has provided me.”