In 2004, Bandwidth.com had the kind of experience that sends shivers down the corporate spine. The Cary telecom company provides phone and Internet service to businesses, some of its own creation, some created by other companies that it resells. It got word from a supplier that one service Bandwidth resold was being discontinued. Bandwidth had 45 days to create and implement a replacement of its own.
"It was audacious," company co-founder, CEO and president David Morken says of the challenge. "We attacked it."
A challenge, Morken was to realize six years later, not unlike that of riding a bike 3,004 miles across the country in six days.
This month, a Bandwidth team won the 29th annual Race Across America (or RAAM as it refers to itself with acronymic license). The arduous race with its many obstacles was, in the end, the perfect challenge for a tech company that has been dealing with a constantly evolving market since it arose from a spare bedroom in Morken's Park City, Utah, apartment in 1999. (Bandwidth.com moved to the Triangle in 2001.)
In 20 years, the telecommunications industry has evolved at breakneck speed from phones tethered to the wall by cords to services the Jetsons couldn't have foreseen. Similarly, Race Across America is a two-wheeled sprint across the country - from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md. - in which cyclists ride around the clock, battling electrical storms, blazing heat, dust devils and the demons inherent to riding through the endless Great Plains at 3 in the morning.
Morken, 43, has a long résumé of epic competition, including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii (swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, then run a marathon), and the Wasatch 100 Ultramarathon (a 100-mile foot race). So it wasn't surprising when he started thinking of Race Across America five years ago. He began preparation for the race two years ago after reading an article about three-time solo winner Wolfgang Fasching.
Morken opted to race as a team, for two reasons. One, the company's fitness culture - employees get an hour and a half for lunch and are encouraged to join an active intramural program as well at a location across Weston Parkway from Umstead State Park - has helped attract some formidable cycling teammates: General counsel John Murdock, 46, is a Category 1 bike racer (one level below pro); director of strategic sales Joe Parke, 34, races in a variety of USA Cycling events; and Sean Matt, 43, a Seattle-based adviser to Bandwidth.com, is a Category 3 racer.
Morken also recognized the race's team-building potential.
While the cyclists were racing across America, Bandwidth.com's roughly 175 employees in Cary would be charged with meeting a fitness challenge of their own. A point system was set up offering employees an equivalent number of miles for a variety of activities. Play volleyball or basketball for an hour, for example, earn 10 miles. If the folks back home could best the mileage logged on the road by Team Bandwidth.com, they'd get a day off.
The challenge began when Team Bandwidth left Oceanside on Saturday, June 12. "They beat us by Tuesday," says Morken. (Bandwidth.com employees - more than 70 percent participated in the challenge - would log more than 6,000 equivalent miles.)
"It was like our own little Amazing Race back here," says Lisa Mangini, an analyst with the company. "First thing every morning we'd check the Web sites to see how they were doing. It really got everyone motivated."
Operations manager Jerry Jeske says the cyclist's competitive zeal was contagious.
"The feeling was, 'Let's not just match 'em
- let's accelerate and really beat 'em'," says Jeske, who topped the employee leader board with 335 equivalent miles, doing four workouts a day during the challenge.
Meanwhile, the race was good test of Team Bandwidth.com's strategic nimbleness.
Initially, the plan was for all four riders to share 30-minute pulls. That is, Matt would ride for 30 minutes, then pass the baton to Morken, who would ride for 30 minutes before handing off to Murdock, and so on. But it wasn't long after Matt left Oceanside that the team saw a problem: its closest competitor was rotating riders every 15 minutes, which provided a huge advantage on the hills immediately outside town. With shorter pulls, the competition could push harder, go faster.
"Even though we were at the beginning of a 3,000-mile race, it sounds insane, but we had to react," says Morken.
Team Bandwidth switched to 20-minute pulls, which they stayed with for much of the rest of the race, through a hailstorm on Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado, through a two-hour dust storm that followed on the plains. For six days, 3 hours and 9 minutes, each team member's routine went pretty much like this: Ride for 20 minutes, get off the bike and into the team bus and down 300 to 500 calories (power gels and bars initially, PBJs and other "regular food" when their digestive systems rebelled), sleep for 20 minutes, repeat.
"I slept about six hours total during the week," says Murdock.
Due as much, perhaps, to their ability to adapt on the fly honed in the telecom industry as to their physical prowess, Team Bandwidth.com rolled into Annapolis at 8:15 on the evening of June 18, more than four hours ahead of its nearest competitor in the four-person team division. Morken credits the victory to that decision moments after the race began to alter their game plan.
"We built our margin of victory at the beginning of the race," he says.
Sweet as the victory was, Morken is hopeful that the experience will have a lasting impact on the company. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
Upon their return to the office on Monday, Morken, Murdock and Parke said they were uniformly greeted in the halls with congratulations, followed quickly by one question.
Joe Miller writes about fitness. Read his blog at GetGoingNC.com.