As It Happens

Canadian endures heat and hallucinations to become 1st woman to win Race Across America

Leah Goldstein, 52, of Vernon, B.C., is the solo champion of this year's Race Across America — and all she had to do to earn that title was survive a brutal heat wave that knocked out most of her competitors, power through terrifying hallucinations, and get back on her feet after she collapsed from exhaustion in the final stretch. 

Leah Goldstein of Vernon, B.C., cycled 4,800 kilometres across 12 states in 11 days, 3 hours and 3 minutes

Canadian Leah Goldstein, 52, is the first woman to win what many consider the most grueling competition in endurance cycling — the Race Across America. (Vic Armijo/RAAM Media )

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A 52-year-old Canadian has become the first woman to win one of the most grueling races in all of endurance cycling.

Leah Goldstein of Vernon, B.C., is the solo champion of this year's Race Across America — and all she had to do was was endure a brutal heat wave that knocked out most of her competitors, power through terrifying hallucinations, and get back on her feet after she collapsed from exhaustion in the final stretch. 

"I mean, honestly, with all the races I've done — and I've done a lot of races most of my life — that was by far the most difficult and challenging," Goldstein told As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue. "I'm starting to feel more alive now."

The Race Across America literally goes coast to coast in the United States, from California to Maryland, and can be done by solo riders or relay teams.

Listen: Race Across America's Canadian victor talks to As It Happens: 

Goldstein, whose Twitter handle is @NoLimitsLeah, truly lived up to that moniker when she crossed the finish line on June 26, after cycling 4,800 kilometres across 12 states in 11 days, three hours and three minutes. Her closest competitor, the U.S.'s Erik Newsholme, was 17 hours behind.

She was one of just three people who managed to complete this year's race after many cyclists dropped out during a heat wave that stretched across huge swaths of the U.S. and Canada. 

Goldstein says it was between 35 C and 49 C for most of her time on the road, and it was just as hot in Kansas and Illinois as it was in Arizona and California. 

The sun burned her skin and her lips, she said, and at one point, she even got a sunburn through the back of her jersey. 

"It's undescribable, the kind of heat and how difficult it was," she said. "I remember it got down to 30 and going, 'Woo hoo! This is nice and cool now.'"

Goldstein rides her bike through the desert on her 4,800-kilometre journey. (Lisa Dorian)

And still, she kept going.

She started the race in Oceanside, Calif., with a bang, riding for 40 straight hours with no sleep. After that, she would sleep for three out of every 24 hours. By the end, she cut her sleep breaks down to a mere 90 minutes, and spent the other 23 hours on her bike. 

"That's ultra-racing for you. I mean, that's one of the the abilities you have to have is to function with very little sleep," she said.

"And your crew has to be very careful by watching you and monitoring you because, you know, you start to hallucinate ... things start jumping out at you and objects become monsters. And, you know, it's crazy, right?"

A member of Leah Goldstein's support team runs behind her as she cycles in the Race Across America. Goldstein says she couldn't have won without her team. ( Vic Armijo/RAAM Media )

But Goldstein has a strategy for dealing with her mind monsters.

"For me to control my hallucinations, I just look at the road. I don't look around, because if I look around, everything will turn into something, right? So I'll just see the hallucinations on the ground and they're normally stable. They won't jump out at me, and that's how I personally control them," she said.

But seeing things isn't the riskiest part, she said. It's falling asleep at the wheel.

"At one point I was riding and I didn't know what I was doing. So that becomes quite dangerous. I didn't know where I was, why I was on my bike," she said. 

Despite her ultimate victory, Goldstein says she almost didn't make it.

"I think a lot of people don't know this, but a thousand metres before the finish, I actually collapsed," she said. "Everything just went numb. I fell onto the grass. There was a patch of grass and I couldn't move my legs, my arms."

With the help of her support crew, she got back up, changed into running sneakers, and walked her bike for the final stretch, hopping back on just in time to descend a hill across the finish line in Annapolis, Md.

She says she couldn't have done it without her team, who followed along in an RV and kept a close eye on her.

"It's not a me thing; it's a we thing. Without an awesome crew, you're not going anywhere," she said. "Your crew is everything. I mean, every ultra-racer knows that, and they absolutely don't get enough kudos for what they do."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. 


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