Interview52-year-old hopes to race again in even less time

Jewish Canadian cyclist is first woman to win toughest ultra-endurance race

Crossing finish line in 11 days, 3 hours and 3 minutes, Leah Goldstein traverses 3,000 miles to take first place in overall solo in grueling Race Across America

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Leah Goldstein pushes hard in the last 500 miles of Race Across America 2021, June 24, 2021. (Tara Roberts/RAAM Media)
    Leah Goldstein pushes hard in the last 500 miles of Race Across America 2021, June 24, 2021. (Tara Roberts/RAAM Media)
  • Leah Goldstein at the Race Across America 2021 finish line. She is the first female to win the overall solo division in the 39-year history of RAAM, finishing the course in 11 days, 3 hours and 30 minutes (Vic Armijo/RAAM Media)
    Leah Goldstein at the Race Across America 2021 finish line. She is the first female to win the overall solo division in the 39-year history of RAAM, finishing the course in 11 days, 3 hours and 30 minutes (Vic Armijo/RAAM Media)
  • Champion cyclist Leah Goldstein (Courtesy)
    Champion cyclist Leah Goldstein (Courtesy)
  • One of Leah Goldstein's crew cools her down as she pulls into 2nd place overall through Tuba City, Arizona in Race Across America 2021, June 18, 2021 (Vic Armijo/RAAM Media)
    One of Leah Goldstein's crew cools her down as she pulls into 2nd place overall through Tuba City, Arizona in Race Across America 2021, June 18, 2021 (Vic Armijo/RAAM Media)

Canadian cyclist Leah Goldstein recently became the first woman to win the overall solo division of Race Across America (RAAM), ultra-racing’s toughest competition.

Goldstein, 52, crossed the finish line in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 26 after riding virtually non-stop 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) across 12 states between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

She did it in just 11 days, three hours and three minutes, enduring days and nights of relentless 35-40 degree Celsius heat (95-104 degrees Fahrenheit), almost no sleep, and hallucinations, to beat her closest rival by 17 hours.

And she’s ready to do it all over again.

“I’ll probably do RAAM again and try to do it in 10 days. I think I have it in me,” she said.

Goldstein recently spoke to The Times of Israel from Annapolis prior to heading home to Vernon, British Columbia, for some rest and recovery before getting back to racing later this year.

Leah Goldstein leading the women at the Race Across America 2021 time station #3 in Brawley, CA, 235 miles from the start in Oceanside, CA (Vic Armijo/RAAM Media)

It is impossible for Goldstein, the Canadian-born daughter of Israeli parents, to stay off her bike. After a successful career as a professional bicycle racer, she turned her attention to ultra-endurance racing, winning RAAM women’s solo division in 2011, and coming in second in the women’s division and fifth overall in 2019.

Goldstein triumphed in 2011, even while suffering from Shermer’s Neck, a condition whereby the neck muscles fatigue to the point of no longer being able to support the head. With her head shaved, taped and tied back, she pushed on.

Previously, in 2005, she was involved in “the mother of all crashes” when a competitor ran into her as she rode in the Cascade Classic in Bend, Oregon.

Goldstein was airlifted to a hospital trauma unit with multiple broken bones, broken teeth and skin ripped and burned from head to toe. She was hospitalized for two and a half months. Her doctors told her that she would never walk without a cane, let alone race again.

Goldstein obviously proved them wrong, getting back on the saddle and having the best pro racing years of her life between the ages of 39 and 42.

Leah Goldstein riding through the desert heat in Race Across America 2021 (Connie Cantrell)

After her RAAM victory in 2011, Goldstein initially intended to retire and focus on writing a memoir and developing a  motivational speaking career. (Her book, “No Limits,” was published in 2016.)

“Racing for that long, mentally I needed a shut-down. I didn’t think I’d go back to it, but RAAM is the one race that I never really felt content with my finish. I felt I could do better,” she said.

Pushing 50, she competed in a qualifying 500-mile race in 2018 and set a new women’s record — beating her own record for that particular course by seven hours.

Leah Goldstein’s 2016 memoir, ‘No Limits: The Powerful True Story of Leah Goldstein-World Champion Kickboxer, Ultra Endurance Cyclist, Israeli Undercover Police Officer,” (No Finish Line Living Adventures Ltd)

“I thought, ‘Damn, I can still ride my bike!'” she said.

However, even after an admirable RAAM finish in 2019, Goldstein was still not ready to walk away from the race , and she set her sights on 2020. Then Covid struck.

“Last year’s race was cancelled because of the pandemic, but I was okay with it. I just continued on and knew that the benefits for my training would carry me on to 2021,” Goldstein said.

Nothing, however, fully prepared her for this year’s RAAM. While in 2019 the riders had to contend with excessive amounts of rain and hail, this year there was extreme heat that caused all but three competitors to drop out.

“It was the hottest weather RAAM had ever experienced. It was definitely unbearable. The sun burned my back right through my jersey. It takes a toll on your body. A lot of people ended up in the hospital,” Goldstein said. “But you have to keep riding because the clock doesn’t stop ticking.”

Despite the unprecedented conditions, Goldstein said she never considered quitting.

Leah Goldstein (right) as a soldier in the IDF, c. late 1980s, early 1990s (Courtesy)

“Quitting should never be an option unless your life is in danger. I knew that if I had quit I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. I don’t know what quitting is,” she asserted.

Goldstein’s iron will was evident from a young age when she excelled in the Korean martial art Taekwando and in kickboxing. She won the Bantamweight World Kickboxing Championship at age 17,  beating her 25-year-old opponent, who was a foot taller than her.

After high school she moved to Israel in the late 1980s to become an IDF soldier, serving as a martial arts instructor for commando units at the military base at the Wingate Institute near Netanya.

With her entire extended family still in Israel (her father’s side were Polish Holocaust survivors who immigrated after World War II, and her mother came from a Russian-speaking family that escaped to the nascent Jewish State from Kuldja, China, following the rise of Communist rule in 1949), Goldstein had always aspired to serve in the IDF.

While in the army, a fellow soldier introduced her to the sport of duathlon, the endurance sport involving cycling and running over long distances.

Goldstein asked the IDF for permission to compete in a duathlon, and she won.

“My strength wasn’t the running. It was the biking. That is how I got the bug for the sport,” she recalled.

Leah Goldstein during her years in the Israel Police, c. 1990s. (Courtesy)

Even as she joined the Israel Police and worked in an undercover unit, she continued to train on her bike every chance she got.

Although her athleticism stood out in tiny Israel, when she returned to Canada in the late 1990s, she was awakened to the difficulty of competitive cycling.

“Basically, I got my ass whupped when I got back,” she said.

Basically, I got my ass whupped

Steadfast in her determination to pursue the sport despite already being in her early 30s, she initially competed as an amateur within her provincial team being picked up by the Canadian national team as a development rider. She was sent to Europe for exposure to competitive European cycling.

Leah Goldstein pushes through the night as she still maintains the overall lead through Pratt Kansas in Race Across America 2021, June 21, 2021 (Vic Armijo/RAAM Media)

“It’s night and day comparing European racing to North American racing. For Europeans, this is what they do. The ride before they crawl,” she explained.

Goldstein’s months in Europe helped her understand what it takes to be an outstanding cyclist, and she subsequently dominated races after returning to North America. She was picked up by US trade teams, and devoted herself to professional racing.

Goldstein attributes her success in ultra-endurance racing to her ability to ignore pain and push herself beyond her limits, and to her ability to function with nearly no sleep — a trait she said she inherited from her mother.

She also gives much of the credit to her support crew, which consists of a range of specialists, including a navigator, a massage therapist, a kinesiologist, and a nurse. They all met regularly over Zoom during the pandemic to analyze mistakes made in past RAAM races and plan for this year.

“They take care of me. When I am out there on my bike I have ‘potato brain,’ and they have to navigate me, watch my cycling pattern, keep me fed and safe. They sleep very little and the job is super-stressful,” Goldstein said.

Keeping Goldstein’s salt and electrolyte balances where they should be was especially difficult in the extreme heat. With a nutritionist’s guidance, Goldstein, who adheres to a plant-based diet, replicated during training what she would eat during the race, which was 70% liquid and 30% solid. The first day of the race she consumed nothing solid at all.

Goldstein, who was honored by the Jewish Sports Heritage Association in 2019, said it brings her much joy and satisfaction to serve as a role model for girls and young women.

“I hope to encourage them that if you set your mind to it, you can do anything. You need to be independent and strong, and you don’t need to rely on anyone for your livelihood. You can take of yourself,” she said.

“You need to come first and not always be the caregiver, which is what we are conditioned to do,” added Goldstein, who is single and has no children.

For older people — of all genders — Goldstein’s message is the importance of moving forward with purpose no matter what your age.

“A lot of people use their age as an excuse and I hate that. Who cares if you are 70, 80 or 90? So we move a little slower and it takes a little bit longer,” she said.

Goldstein, however, seems to only get faster.

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