• Rupert Guinness in action during VRAAM. (VRAAM/Facebook)Source: VRAAM/Facebook
It started out as a half serious thought on a hike. Seven weeks and 12 days later, Rupert Guinness and his Virtual Race Across America (VRAAM) crew accomplished their vision of generating some positivity into a COVID-19 world with a global social media reach of 8.6 million.
By
Rupert Guinness

24 Jul 2020 - 5:25 PM  UPDATED 24 Jul 2020 - 5:30 PM

A month has almost passed since I went to a garage and raced a stationary bike for 12 days.

I never thought that a journalistic career in which I have written about the sport for 37 years would lead me to this. But as the days have passed since, I have become more grateful for the experience that was officially titled the Virtual Race Across America (VRAAM).

VRAAM spawned from the demise of the 2020 Race Across America (RAAM) that was cancelled on April 3 due to the COVID pandemic and for which I was a fully paid entry. 

I had put my heart and soul into training for this year’s RAAM under my Slovenian coach Marko Baloh who placed second overall in RAAM last year. But when it was cancelled, I quickly latched on to the best alternative so as to not throw all my good, hard work to waste.

VRAAM's mastermind was my RAAM crew chief Anthony Gordon. It began one day when he took a hike. He returned with the thought that by me riding a virtual RAAM route we could use the platform of that occasion to generate some positivity into a COVID-19 world.

Of course, I dismissed the idea; but the next day I called him to say, ‘yes.’

Seven weeks later, VRAAM was an event that when it started on June 16 boasted 210 entrants from 32 countries, with the field entered in one of three categories.

Those categories were the VRAAM of 4,500km, the VRAW (Virtual Race Across the West) of 1,450km and ‘The60’ where riders rode 60 minutes a day for each of the 12 days. By the time it was all over at 11pm (Sydney time) on June 28, and I was well into celebrating my result in the VRAAM distance under a shower of champagne at the G Bros Mercedes car showroom in Mona Vale on Sydney’s northern beaches, the event had a reach of 8.6 million on social media alone.

VRAAM is DONE! Rupert Guinness has done it. He has not only completed the 3,248km to be qualified a VRAAM Finisher, but...

Posted by VRAAM on Sunday, 28 June 2020

I was thrilled with my eighth place with 3,357km ridden – well past the 3,248km mark to automatically qualify for RAAM even though I had already secured a spot.

I was so thankful to my support crew without whom I would not have gone so well. 

I was also thrilled that VRAAM had achieved what it set out to do: to generate positivity.

This was a credit to the organisers, all who raced VRAAM and their support crews, and everyone who followed it.

My journey to that point has been captured by Gordon, a world acclaimed videographer and story teller, in his latest film: ‘Mental Miles’ that SBS will broadcast this Sunday, from 3pm.

However, this journey is a long way from being over. There are many more kilometres to ride with some exciting adventures planned en-route to hopefully racing RAAM in 2021.

Since VRAAM, one of the most common of many questions I have been asked is how could I ride a stationary bike for so long without going anywhere?

My answer: VRAAM was always going to be the mental challenge, notwithstanding the physical rigours. It was really about not becoming overcome by the understandable thought of how riding a stationary bike will be so boring, that time will pass so slowly and that it is a crazy thing to do.

VRAAM was all about embracing that challenge, its uniqueness, and reminding myself of its commitment to heighten awareness for mental health, a campaign boosted by the support of Associate Professor Simon Rosenbaum of the University of NSW whose research shows that if people do 60 minutes of exercise a week the rate of depression can be reduced by 17 per cent.

So, the challenge for me was to find in my mind the best way to overcome the mental hurdles of VRAAM which I did, breaking the 12 days down into a series of processes.

The mind is so important. Why? Because, the mind is our most powerful and needed tool. It allows us to cope with scenarios life throws at us – from its successes to the curve balls.

I feel so grateful for the life I have led and the opportunities that it has presented me with.

Saying that, like many, I have wrestled with mental health demons. My demons stem from a lack of self-esteem in my childhood when I had weight issues that led to me developing the eating disorder, bulimia during my days as a lightweight rower that I still wrestle with today.

But rather than be ashamed or hide from my vulnerabilities, I have learned to embrace those issues as a part of me.

I am proud of my strengths, but also, I am excited about working on my perceived weaknesses – areas I prefer to look as ones of growth.

For much of this I owe to endurance sport, from my days as rower (despite them leading to my bulimia), triathlete and finally cyclist. But it is in the latter, cycling – or in more recent years, ultra-endurance cycling - that I have truly found the balance I previously lacked.

I am not saying ultra-distance cycling is the key to everyone finding that balance in life, but I do believe exercise – in any form or shape – is key to one’s mental well-being.

And I can say that ultra-distance cycling has taught me so much that parlays to my life off the bike as much as on it, as a journalist, husband, friend, or most simply…as a person.

Watch the story of Rupert's VRAAM journey in the documentary 'Mental Miles' on SBS from 3pm, Sunday 26 July.