Paul Carpenter pedals his daily commute to NIU from suburban Batavia.
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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
July 21, 2008
DeKalb — The flashing red light in the distance should have appeared closer as Paul Carpenter pedaled nearer and nearer on his bicycle.
But it did not.
Or at least it seemed that way to the 49-year-old Carpenter, struggling through the final 30 miles of the 1,044-mile Race Across the West in the wee-hours darkness and frigid cold of the New Mexico desert. He had enjoyed a little more than three hours of sleep spread during three days, 11 hours and 27 minutes of battling the harsh elements and terrain.
“I could’ve sworn someone kept moving the light further and further away. Psychological I guess,” says Carpenter, chair of Northern Illinois University’s Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. “It’s completely desolate out there, and it becomes very hard when you’ve not had that much sleep to keep your concentration and not drift off. The shadows on the road can wreak havoc.”
Carpenter had expected the final leg of his long and grueling journey would prove the easiest.
During the previous stage he had made two mountain passes, one of which took him 10,000 feet up. The climb itself spanned 15 miles. Other passages took him 200 feet below sea level.
He already had endured daytime temperatures in California and Arizona that soared past 110 degrees and had shivered through overnight temperatures in the 20s. His left foot, which is slightly bigger than the right, had swollen even larger and required a change to a larger shoe.
“I thought, ‘If I get through this stage, that’s it. I’m done. It’s all downhill into Taos.’ But it was done at night – 60 miles of freezing cold on completely featureless terrain in the dark. It just seemed to drag by,” Carpenter says.
Yet when he finally – mercifully – reached the finish line in Taos, N.M., early Thursday, June 12, he was the first. His average speed of 12.51 mph was more than good enough to win.
Eight hours and 33 minutes later, when the maximum completion time expired, Carpenter was the only competitor of an original field of eight to officially reach the destination. He had collapsed into bed long before then, of course, sleep coming as soon as his head hit the pillow.
When he eventually awoke, the early-morning victory wasn’t the stuff of his dreams.
“I really hadn’t gone there with the notion that winning was important. It was to learn more about the event. To have won was just a bonus,” he says. “I knew by about mile 800 that, unless I stopped, I was going to win. I knew many of the other riders were dropping out, and I was surprised so many dropped out. I figured that most, based on their experience, would finish.”
Carpenter held that same confidence in himself. “I never doubted I would finish. I knew I could finish within the time frame unless there was a major catastrophe,” he says. “And if there was a major catastrophe, finishing was the least of my worries.”
The purpose was to determine whether he has what it takes to attempt the Race Across America.
RAAM is held annually in the middle of June, this year sending its bicyclists from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md. Riders must finish the 3,014 miles in 12 days; the winner typically arrives on Day 8.
Carpenter and the seven other Race Across the West solo competitors – four men and three women – started pedaling with the RAAM racers and followed the same course. Several teams also had entered. The only difference was the stopping point; Carpenter was the 10th rider to reach Taos.
“My goal here was to gain the experience of doing RAAM – to see whether doing the full race was remotely feasible. It was an opportunity to get some experience racing under RAAM conditions,” he says.
“At this point, I know I absolutely will do the race one day. I don’t want to reach a point where I regret not having tried,” he adds. “I’ve sort of harbored this dream – this fantasy – of taking part in RAAM for 20 years now, and until about three years ago, it was nothing more than wishful thinking. And then, last year, I qualified.”
Carpenter earned a three-year window of eligibility for RAAM late last September when he won the Tejas 500 near Cleburne, Texas, about 70 miles southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth. He completed his 25th lap around the 20-mile loop in 30 hours and 57 minutes.
Obviously, speed and distance pose few challenges for Carpenter, who commutes to NIU from suburban Batavia on his bicycle.
“There’s no particular trick or secret to staying awake. You don’t even focus or think about it. You just try to keep your mind active,” he says. “It’s amazing how much you can get going on even a half-hour of sleep. Most people find 90 minutes of sleep is enough to rejuvenate themselves. You cross that finish life, and all of a sudden, life is rosy.”
What truly concerns him about RAAM are the logistics.
Racers are required to retain a crew, and Carpenter assembled his first-ever support squad for last month’s contest: his parents, Beryl and John; his cousin, Brian Rosin; and Brian’s wife Lynda.
The foursome traveled from Carpenter’s native United Kingdom and spent a few days of their U.S. vacation tailing within 50 feet of their bicycle-racing relative. Brian nicknamed them the “Gray Panthers” in recognition of their status as the oldest crew. All are retired.
“My crew had no experience. We took the position that we would do this as simply as possible. I had a cell phone; they also had a cell phone in the car,” he says. “They had a critical and pivotal role. Encouragement. A change of clothes. Sunscreen. Making sure you’re refueled with food and drink. Making sure you stay on course. There is quite of bit of navigation to stay on course from time station to time station.”
Sometimes Carpenter and his crew played leapfrog as the car would pass the bicycle, drive ahead and wait for Carpenter to catch up.
During dark periods, when the car was required to follow behind, some of the navigation communications were handled by horn: “One toot for left,” Carpenter says. “Two toots for right.”
The four rookies proved an amazing asset, shaking off fatigue and stress. They accrued no time penalties for race violations, a fantastic feat considering the more than 70 pages of rules.
“Without them, I couldn’t have done this,” Carpenter says. “Even at the best of times – and they’re in very good health – my parents aren’t enamored with driving in the states. It was good to have my cousin there. In one lifetime, he was a long-distance truck driver. He did a lot of the driving, and that was quite important.”
A crew also creates expenses, of course, including gasoline, meals and the cost of travel to the starting line. Some racers bring teams of eight support staff along with two or three vehicles. This summer’s extraordinary prices at the pump might have caused the low number of RAW racers, Carpenter says.
Participation in RAAM will cost Carpenter $20,000, an estimated $1,995 of that for the entry fee. Part of the $20,000 also pays for spare bike parts, food and water.
Carpenter also has concluded he must add a coordinator to his team.
“One factor that may determine whether I do RAAM next year is if I can find someone to take on all the logistical organization. To organize for RAAM and to train for RAAM is just not possible,” he says. “For all my other ultra races, I’ve thrown my bike into the back of my car and off I’ve gone. You can’t do it for this.”
But he’s clearly craving the test and is thirstier now more than ever. One of his bicycling friends told him that a successful race is about working through the bad times and making the most of the good times, an adage he now has lived for himself.
The task now is to train with some longer rides when the stopwatch isn’t ticking.
“I will make a decision on RAAM2009 this fall. Having experienced RAW, I have a better handle on the logistical, physical and psychological challenges RAAM presents, and they are formidable,” he says. “It’s an emotional rollercoaster. You have some moments that are absolutely fantastic. Several hours later, you’re in the pits of despair. You just have to experience it. You read about it, you hear about it and you really can’t get a handle on it. Ultimately, you come out of it, and it’s a very special experience.”
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