For Paul Carpenter, chair of the Department of Kenisiololgy and Physical Education in the College of Education at NIU, getting there isn’t half the fun.
It’s all the fun.
He is an avid cycler and has competed in countless races for the better part of the last decade. The caveat – the races he competes in are at least 200 miles long and can reach 3,000 miles.
His most recent accomplishment involved tackling the Trans Iowa V9, a 323-mile gravel race through the corn-laden land of Iowa.
Considered by many as the “granddaddy of ultra-gravel races” and the “toughest gravel race” on the calendar, the loose gravel texture of the paths makes for much tougher traction and control for the rider, in turn demanding extreme endurance and strenuous amounts of energy. The course’s difficult terrain can vary from flat surfaces to extreme inclines and declines up to a half mile or more.
To further increase the degree of difficulty, the competition is self-supported – meaning the organizers provide no support on the course and racers must support themselves and carry all they need.
The course isn’t marked, and no GPS is allowed. And, while racers are given cue sheets that list turns and mileage, the cue sheets don’t provide information on the towns the race passes through. The racers get the cue sheet to the first time station at the pre-race meeting the night before and only get subsequent cue sheets to the next time station if they reach the time station within the assigned cut-off time.
“This was a very difficult race on a number of levels,” said Carpenter. “Gravel is harder to ride on, but the loose, chunky gravel this year made holding a line very difficult. This coupled with the race being exclusively self-supported with no outside help made it the hardest 300-plus miles I have ever ridden.”
Carpenter has incorporated his prowess on bicycle racing into his teachings. He began a well-received gravel bike class last fall, and will offer it agaain next semester.
“In many regards, ultra-cycling is a metaphor for how I approach life – resilience, durability, perseverance, determination, commitment,” Carpenter said. “As an administrator, I draw on my expertise as a sport scientist and my experience as a cyclist to convey the passion I have and the philosophy I follow in improving one’s physical and mental well-being.”
Fewer than 30 percent of Trans Iowa V9 participants finish on a yearly basis. This year Carpenter finished 10th overall in a field of more than 90 cyclers.
“In long events like this you can go through a roller coaster of emotions,” Carpenter added. “There is anxiety of the impending start and whether you are ready and the nerves associated with going into a competition. As the race unfolds you go through highs and lows and you question whether you can finish. Sometimes everything is going really well and you feel invincible, then the bottom drops out and you worry about making the time cut-offs.”
Carpenter began cycling back in 1988 after he crashed his motorcycle and couldn’t afford to fix it. He started competing in ultra-bike races in 2004.
“I started riding back and forth to class, then eventually started competing in longer events,” Carpenter said. “Bike riding became my primary form of transportation.”
In a given year, Carpenter rides an estimated 20,000 miles per year. He rides two or three 24-hour races, a handful of 12-hour races, several 200-mile races, and one event of more than 500 miles. He also participates in a number of organized centuries (100-mile rides).
To stay in shape, Carpenter commutes from home to work and back daily, a 62-mile round trip. For specific events, he begins conditioning six to eight weeks before the race and depending on the event, combines endurance training with speed training.
“As someone whose professional and personal life is focused on physical activity, I am always looking for ways to test my physical, and mental, limits.” Carpenter said. “Ultra-cycling gives me opportunities to participate in something that is physically and mentally challenging. I try to practice what I preach – the importance of being physically active to improve one’s physical and mental well-being.”