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Austin cyclist gears up for 1,000-mile No Country for Old Men race

Pam LeBlanc

This weekend, while you are curled on the couch watching a football game, Austin endurance cyclist Andrew Willis will be pedaling 1,000 miles across the West Texas desert.

Fueled by a steady stream of cookies, doughnuts, brownies, fast-food hamburgers, tater tots and Sour Patch Kids candy (because when you cover that kind of distance, who cares what you eat, as long as you eat), Willis will attempt to add a third jewel to his No Country for Old Men crown.

Willis, a former pro racer who’d retired from the sport and grown doughy before returning like a zealot three years ago, entered his first endurance race and set a course record in the 200-mile division of the West Texas race in 2014. In 2015, he added a win in the 383-mile category.

This year, he’s staring down the barrel of the 1,000-mile Big Kahuna. “I decided I’d finish the year pushing the boundaries,” he says.

RELATED: Andrew Willis faces challenges but finishes Race Across the West

So, to ask the obvious question, why would anyone undertake a 1,000-mile race, knowing the suffering it will entail?

“Because I can, and because I enjoy it,” Willis says. “Why do any of us gravitate toward anything? I enjoy it, which I know sounds weird. For this I’ll be completely unplugged for three days, and it’s a little like a vacation from life.”

Long-distance racing, he says, also makes him a better man. “One thing I’ve learned since I got back into riding is I think as a husband, father and human being I’m a better person when I have something on the calendar to work toward, a goal,” he says. “I feel more focused and productive in every aspect of my life. Without it I feel lost.”

The Country for Old Men race starts and finishes in Alpine. In between, it loops all over West Texas, dipping into Big Bend National Park, where it climbs up into the Chisos Basin, and heading to Marfa, Fort Davis and Fort Stockton. It features more than 41,000 feet of climbing. A support crew will follow Willis in a van as he rides.

Depending on how the event goes, Willis says he’ll decide afterward if he wants to take another crack at 930-mile Race Across the West, or RAW, which starts in California and finishes in Colorado, next year.

Willis attempted RAW but had to drop out in 2015. Last year he finished in eighth place, despite a bone-stabbing flareup of gout that forced him off his bike for about 20 hours midstream. He sank into a depression after last year’s race that lasted several months.

“It wasn’t so much that RAW didn’t go according to plan, it was the reaction when I got home,” he says. “Everywhere I went, people told me they were sorry or ‘that sucks’ or that maybe I should quit because of the gout.”

RELATED: At Tour deDonut, cyclists toss back pastries as they race around city

The well- intentioned reaction left him feeling hollow and hesitant to share his more recent accomplishments on social media.

“I kind of feel like I was protecting myself,” he says. He’s also taking medication to manage the gout, a painful condition caused by the crystallization of uric acid in body tissue. “Last year changed me.”

Unbeknownst to many of the cyclists who race at the weekly Driveway Series of races produced by Willis’ company Holland Racing, he began competing again last fall. He won four out of five races that he started and set two course records. He pulled out of the fifth with a two-hour lead because he was overheating. He wanted to save his energy for this weekend’s 1,000-miler.

Willis will race against seven other cyclists at Old Country for Old Men, including another Austin cyclist, David Baxter. The course record of 72 hours is held by Chris Hopkinson of Great Britain.

“Having done this for a couple years now, I’ve learned not to set any kind of goal or expectation,” Willis says. “I’m just looking to have a good, consistent ride. Maybe that’s 60 hours, maybe that’s 80 hours.”

Here in Austin, Willis has been training about 20 hours a week on the bike, mostly on an indoor trainer. He’s also testing various napping strategies, trying to train his mind to make the gravelly transition from sleep to riding.

The weather looks good for Saturday’s start, with highs forecast in the 70s and lows in the 50s.