Fourteen years ago, Patrick Sweeney, former Olympic rower, and endurance athlete was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. The odds were bleak. Chances of survival were low.
Not long after his diagnosis, he logged into an online chat room full of people with his condition, thinking he’d find someone to talk to.
“Everyone seemed to be a slave to their disease,” he tells Mens Journal. “They gave their medicines little nicknames and seemed to identify as a sick and diseased person. Their lives seem to be just about survival.”
With treatment at Johns Hopkins, Sweeney wound up overcoming the leukemia. And he decided it was time to make life worth living again.
“Before I had come face-to-face with death, fear kept me from doing things that were exciting or important to me,” he says. “One thing I firmly believe is that we don’t get enough fear in our lives and that, often times, people don’t know how to use it. I use fear as fuel.”
In fact, it’s fueled him to cycle up and down Kilimanjaro, complete the Iditarod Trail Invitational, run from LA to Boston, and, last month, as part of a four-person team, win Race Across America—a 3,000-mile cycling trek from Oceanside, CA, to Annapolis, MD, considered the hardest cycling event in the country. (Competitors push their bodies so hard some wind up with Shermer’s Neck, when your neck muscles fatigue so much that they can’t support your head.)
We caught up with Sweeney to find out what a first-place finish required—and what everyone should know about achieving the unthinkable.
Mens Journal: First things first: How does someone train for a race of this rigor?
Patrick Sweeney: For me, the key is maintaining a base level of fitness. In the winter, I do ski mountaineering, cross-country skiing, and fat biking to keep my aerobic fitness and endurance up. I also spend a lot of time doing burpees, pullups, rock climbing, and handstands—work that requires balance, agility, and flexibility.
Yoga and kettlebell work helped prepare me for all of that time in the saddle, too, and I did a fair amount of sauna training. It helps adapt you to the heat but also stimulates the production of EPO (erythropoietin). That’s the stuff that Lance took illegally that your body produces naturally. Sauna training stimulates its production.
But you still had to do a lot of training on the bike, right?
I hate riding a stationary trainer so for the two months preceding the race, knowing I had a deep level of fitness, my strategy was what I call ‘forced exhaustion’. I found a 200-mile race in Spain. It was a 13-hour initial effort. I also found a couple of six to eight-hour races. I just forced myself to get in the saddle and stay there. The last month I started doing specific workouts where, for five or six hours, I’d do 30 minutes hard then get off the bike for 30 minutes and repeat. That’s what we did in the race.
Thirty minutes on, 30 minutes off doesn’t give you much time to rest. What was your sleep strategy?
I would try to get 15- to 20-minute power naps. I think those saved my life. My brain was so exhausted. But sleeping in the RV was like trying to sleep on a trampoline. Of course, after day three I was so tired I could have put my head down on a cactus to fall asleep. After even 15 minutes, I’d wake up feeling like a whole new man.
What goes through your mind when fatigue starts to set in and it’s not time to sleep?
It’s a funny tension. As the race goes on, the suffering increases exponentially. I try to think about the next hill, the 10 strokes, the next 10 minutes. Then, when things get really tough, I fall back to my commitment to the team, the volunteers, and my family. We can all do about 20 times more than we think we can. We just tend to put upper limits on ourselves. But when you get down to it, people cut their own arms off or walk for a month without food to survive. I try to remind myself I can always do more than I think I can.
“One thing I firmly believe is that we don’t get enough fear in our lives and that, often times, people don’t know how to use it. I use fear as fuel.”
Were there any unexpected setbacks you had to overcome?
We had everything—falling trees in the middle of thunder and lightning storms, rivers flooding onto main roads in the middle of the night, a massive sandstorm in the Mojave desert, five or six natural disasters. But I can’t control six inches of rain or dead armadillos on the road. It’s all about having a laser-like focus on the things I can control—how much water I’m taking in, how many watts I’m producing on the bike—and not wasting energy on the things I can’t.
What about nutrition?
I was on a ketogenic diet with about 80 percent of my calories coming from fat. I lost probably eight or nine pounds during the race, which isn’t that much for something of this length. Being fat-adapted made it so I was never craving food. I basically never bonked.
I only replenished with natural food, too. My go-to nutrition on the bike is boiled potatoes with olive oil and salt, and peanut butter and banana sandwiches. For recovery, I drank almond milk smoothies with Ascent protein and XCT Oil from Bulletproof.
What were the worst and best parts?
Worst was Missouri: heat and humidity, litter, dead armadillos, snapping turtles, and tractor trailers blasting by me 50 miles per hour, six to seven inches off my hip. I couldn’t wait to get out of Missouri.
My favorite part was an area called Wolf Creek Pass, a 12,000-foot high mountain in Colorado. Instead of 30 minutes on and 30 minutes off, we did one-mile shifts which were about seven minutes. I was an Olympic rower and the single scull race I used to compete in was seven minutes long. I was back in my zone.
Another highlight was arriving at Ohio University around midnight one night. It was pouring rain, the streets were slick, and it was really tough to see. All I was thinking was that this was a college town and kids would be out drunk driving and they wouldn’t see me. Then, on one corner I saw this couple—a guy and a girl with a cowbell standing underneath an umbrella. It caught me so off guard that people would be standing in the pouring rain at midnight on a Thursday night to cheer on one guy every few hours. That definitely put a smile on face.