Photo courtesy of Leah Goldstein.
Leah Goldstein puts the “severe” into persevere. The physical demands and rigours she experienced in life include being a kickboxing champion, a professional cyclist, an elite military officer, and overcoming near-death accidents.
The latest triumph over adversity is a record-setting one: in June 2021, the B.C. resident became the fi rst woman to win Race Across America (RAAM) in its 38-year history. The 5,000-kilometre race — from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland— must be completed in under 12 days. Goldstein completed it in 11 days, three hours, and three minutes.
Lessons in fortitude and grit began quite early for her with Taekwondo lessons at age nine. By 16, she achieved a black belt as the National Junior Champion. She moved on to kickboxing, and while juggling high school classes, she became World Bantamweight Kickboxing Champion in 1989. The secret to excelling, she insists, is to know one’s own weaknesses.
“My coach, he never told me what I was good at. I knew what I was good at. What he told me is what I’m bad at, and how I need to improve it. And even when I improve[d], he said, there’s always a better way to do it, you can always be better,” she explained. “Because he believed that’s what I could do. Are you willing to make it better? How much are you willing to fight for it?”
That kind of distilled willpower carried into her Israeli military service. She became one of a handful of women instructors of the elite commando division and later, a krav maga self-defense trainer for special unit soldiers.
A new athletic challenge presented itself when she later shifted gears to professional cycle racing, where she would pedal tens of thousands of kilometers competitively.
Yet, despite the training, and safety precautions, a string of serious injuries occurred that would have permanently discouraged an ordinary rider from ever riding a bike again.
In a Pennsylvania race in 2004, she fell off the bike, breaking her hand. And then, in 2005, after winning nine of her first 11 races, she was involved in what she calls “the mother of all crashes” during the Cascade Classic— she landed on her face at 80 kilometres an hour, “breaking practically every bone in my body, ripping my face right off.”
Doctors were astounded she survived at all. More astounding was her outlook on the situation: “I actually came back out of that stronger than I was prior.”
In 2008, she was hit by a car, was ejected 25 feet in the air and, in an attempt to cushion the fall, put her arms out, breaking both of them.
With her indomitable spirit, no accident ever could break her. She returned to the racing circuit in 2011, winning the women’s solo category of Race Across America, breaking the previous record by 12 hours.
A decade later, she would win the race, altogether. “Race Across America is like no other race,” the 52-year-old said. “I’ve done the equivalent of the Tour de France for females. I’ve done major races and other ultra endurance races of 500, 800 miles, and nothing compares — because it’s not a matter of if, but when you’re going to experience all sorts of discomforts: back, neck, knee, constipation, diarrhea, swelling, some major saddle sores.”
This year’s race was particularly extreme, during a heat wave that punished riders with temperatures of more than 40°C; not just through the desert, but for the first eight days.
“You can’t let any distraction pull you away from your goal. If you want the success, the only way to get there is 110 per cent lasering in and shutting off everything else,” she said.
During certain parts, she had hallucinations. “I didn’t know what I was doing on my bike. I didn’t know where I was. And then, you kind of snap out of it,” she explained. “It’s that element of the mental challenge of really pushing forward…no matter what kind of pain you are in.”
It helped that this was her third RAAM, she said, and the crew was able to analyze her past performance to build on it.
“We wrote down every single mistake that we made in 2019, with weather conditions, navigational problems, bike positioning, training, with sleep patterns, and we tried to perfect it as much as possible. And because of COVID last year, I had an extra year to prepare for this. I trained as if RAAM was still going to happen.”
Her onboard crew included a medic, a kinesiologist, massage therapists, and nutritionists. “I think they know how I roll, and know how to read me on the bike, when I’m starting to fade or things are going sideways, or I’m low on nutrition,” she said.
Whereas riders fought the heat this year, they fought “uncontrollable rain and hail” two years ago. The crew prepared her with specialized clothing and pre-tested water-resistant equipment, just in case those conditions would prevail again.
“Prepare for the worst that possibly can happen, no matter how fully prepared you think you are,” she said. “It’s a matter of how badly do you want it, and how much are you willing to sacrifice.”
It is in that theme she published her 2016 memoir, No Limits, outlining the triumphs and tragedies of her athletic life. While the naysayers — who called her “insane and crazy”— said she was “past her prime,” she proved them all wrong.
“Don’t use your age as an excuse, or your past experiences as an excuse,” she said. “If you have a desire to do it, goddamn do it. What are you waiting for?”
Because of the high temperatures, the latest race took her a couple of days longer than expected, but she said that the next one she plans on doing in under 10 days — and she’ll keep competing until she can’t anymore.
“If I’m alive at age 90, and I can still pedal my bike, I’m doing that race,” she said. “That’s my biggest goal.”
Dave Gordon | Contributing Writer