At 3 a.m. on Sunday, July 27, Luke Kocher, like nearly everyone else in the state at that moment, was sleepy.
The difference? Kocher was in the middle of a 400-mile bike race across Minnesota and part of Wisconsin.
With 22 hours under his belt, and just nine hours to go, trainer and support crew member Gary Schnabel said Kocher was nearly sleeping on his feet in the early morning hours of the second day.
“We stopped to get coffee, and he’s falling asleep standing there,” said Schnabel. But, with a 34-hour time limit to complete the long distance race, there was no time for sleep. And Kocher’s body was well aware.
“We put him back on the bike, and he just keeps going,” said Schnabel.
After a couple of years of practice leading up to the event, including sixth months of real training, Kocher wasn’t about to be denied.
The 2008 Monticello High School graduate completed the race, the Minnesota RAAM, in 31 hours, qualifying with (relative) ease for the national Race Across America.
Kocher, who took up road biking just a couple short years ago, now plans to complete that 3,000 mile odyssey in 2016.
It all would’ve seemed unthinkable just two years ago.
Kocher had some mountain biking experience in college at Winona State University, and prior to that had biked to work in high school, but when he graduated from Winona in 2012, he wasn’t exactly in peak physical shape.
Schnabel, who had been friends with Kocher for several years, decided to invite the recent graduate on a two day bike trip from the Canadian border to Duluth. Kocher was immediately hooked.
“Gary is the first person that really got me into biking as far as just building a passion for it, really,” said Kocher.
Soon, the duo decided to sign up for the 120-mile race at the Minnesota RAAM.
It was a rewarding experience, something that gave Kocher a taste of testing his limits.
“It felt really good to accomplish something like that,” he said, adding “it was kind of cool to see how far we could push ourselves.”
So, shortly after that race ended, Kocher turned his eyes toward the 400-mile national qualifier.
Schnabel suggested that maybe they try the 200-mile course first, prompting Kocher to take some time to think about it.
But by early winter, his mind was made up. He wanted to do the 400-miler.
Schnabel told Kocher that he wasn’t going to do the rice with him, but at Kocher’s request, he would be more than happy to be his trainer.
And so in January, the two begin a six month training plan. Kocher, who was working around 60 hours a week between two jobs, would often wake up at 4:30 or five to get in his bike workouts, going at least an hour five to six days a week. He would try to keep Saturday’s off from work, so he could schedule his 3-4 hour long rides on those days.
As Kocher continued his serious training, which was largely based on heart rate (kept between 137 and 155) and RPM’s (kept between 90 and 100) thanks to Schnabel’s knowledge, he found himself getting into shape.
By the time the race rolled around on July 26th, Kocher had moved from 255 pounds all the way down to 173, according to Schnabel.
When Kocher awoke at 3 a.m. Saturday morning, he felt surprisingly rested. He’d anticipated a lack of sleep during the night, but instead had slept solidly. By the time he had a cup of coffee, his first dose of caffeine in nearly seven months, he was ready to roll.
The race began at 5 a.m., leaving from Lake Rebecca Park and following the Crow River to the north. Kocher and the six other riders each went off 30 seconds apart, allowing space for their support crew (which consisted of Schnabel, who was later joined by his wife Jill, and then by Kocher’s friend Mark, and was crucially important in keeping Kocher fed and hydrated, plus constantly checking on his condition) to trail them.
The first 12 hours of the race, Kocher cruised at a pace slightly faster than where he’d trained. By the time he reached Ellsworth, Wisc., the heat of the day, combined with nearing the time of his longest training ride (12 hours), and a slight lack of water, Kocher started to overheat.
While they were sitting at a gas station for nearly three hours, letting Kocher cool down, text messages of support started rolling in to Jill to be passed on to Kocher.
“We had a bunch of people back at home saying they were praying for me,” said Kocher. “It was really encouraging.”
He said it was those people, and the people that cheered him on as he came through Monti, plus the essential support of his crew members, that kept him going.
Well that, and some Starbucks double espressos.
“Caffeine was a huge help too,” said Kocher,
Following the bout with heat exhaustion, Kocher got back on the bike and just kept pushing the pedals. He pushed through sleepiness, through a series of three big hills in the middle of the night, and through the dangerous hour right before dawn. As the sun rose, he had just a handful of hours left to ride. And as the sun reached it’s peak, Kocher was pushing through the finish line, at noon on July, 27, 31 hours after starting.
He said the feeling of finishing (he was one of five riders, out of seven, to do so), with friends, family and officials on hand to witness it was simply remarkable.
“You get this kind of high off of it,” he said. “It’s a really humbling experience to go that far and to have all of those people [supporting] you.”
Now, he wants to go a whole lot farther.
Just days after finishing the race, Kocher was ready to hop back on the bike and begin training for the real Race Across America, a 3,000 mile ride from coast to coast, which he plans to do in 2016.
“The ability to have that free open road to go out on is [also] really humbling,” said Kocher. “On a bike, you can go anywhere.”
Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]