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Coast to coast: NIU’s Paul Carpenter to pedal Across America

June 1, 2010

Paul Carpenter remembers well the desolation of the New Mexico desert at night, how his sore and swollen feet somehow managed to keep turning the pedals on his bicycle while the road’s shadows and his own tired mind played their own tricks.

Enveloped by cold and darkness, and deprived of sleep, the chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education at Northern Illinois University spent three full days and half of a fourth in pursuit of a 1,044-mile goal.

Winning the 2008 Race Across the West wasn’t as important as finishing the trek from Oceanside, Calif., to Taos, N.M. Carpenter managed both and soon crawled into a bed.

But that was then. And that was nothing.

Come Wednesday, June 9, he will find himself back in Oceanside. This time, however, the course doesn’t stop two states away. This time, the trip isn’t a mere 1,044 miles.

This time, Carpenter will Race Across America.

“Some people think I’m absolutely insane, but there are others who find it very motivational and an amazing adventure, something extraordinary to undertake,” he says.

“My primary goal is to be an official finisher – to complete it just inside 12 days. I’m not going to try and focus too much on where I place or where my position is. The goal is to finish,” he adds. “To some degree, just making it to the starting line has been a long and arduous road, and from that standpoint, just being in the race is a big plus.”

The Race Across America covers 3,014 miles from its starting line to its finish in Annapolis, Md. Even though 12 days are allowed for the 30 solo riders, the winner typically arrives on Day 8.

Carpenter earned a three-year window of eligibility for RAAM in 2007 when he won the Tejas 500. He had dreamt of the race for 20 years, but rarely imagined that he would gain such access.

Nine months later, he signed up for the Race Across the West simply to determine whether he was ready for the ultimate challenge.

“As someone whose professional life is focused on physical activity,” Carpenter says, “RAAM offers the ultimate physical and mental challenge. Part of the appeal and the excitement is testing one’s physical and emotional limits. This also comes through with a large measure of anxiety as RAAM takes you into the unknown.”

Carpenter’s commute to NIU from suburban Batavia on his bike, through all sorts of conditions, has laid the foundation for RAAM. However, RAAM is three times longer than he ever has ridden, “and I have no idea of exactly what’s going to happen,” he says. “Part of the excitement, and the fear, is not knowing how I will handle the physical and emotional stresses that area a part of RAAM.”

What also concerns Carpenter are the logistics.

Participation in RAAM costs about $20,000 – the entry fee is only a tenth of that figure – and he’s held some fundraisers to make the money.

He’s taking three bikes. His main warhorse is a Cervelo RS, “a comfort performance bike designed to be ridden and to be ridden fast.” Another in the fleet provides slightly heavier tires to provide some relief on rough roads and fenders in case of rain.

His crew of 12 will rotate navigational, driving and nutritional duties through three vehicles: Carpenter’s, his friend’s and a rental. Race rules require Carpenter to equip the cars with several special safety features, including exterior lights.

The vehicles haul not only the crew, which includes his wife, Melissa Hyams, and his son, Sam, but also the supplies.

“The primary follow vehicle has a built-in bed where I will take most of my sleep breaks. The plan right now is to take a sleep break from 2 to 5 a.m. each day, and that’s about it,” Carpenter says. “I’ll take some shorter breaks during the day, 10 or 15 minutes here and there. That’s Plan A. In RAAM, plans sometimes go out the window, so we may have to go to Plan B, or Plan C or Plan D, or whatever other plans are needed to finish.”

Several KNPE colleagues are going along.

Athletic trainers Roger Kalisiak and Susie Stevenson will serve cover medial concerns and also run the protocols for KNPE professors Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen and Amanda Salacinski. “A lot of data with me as the subject will be collected,” Carpenter says, “and that will also help provide me with real-time information on my nutritional and physiological status – keys to a successful race.”

Craig Broeder, owner of Exercising Nutritionally Clinical Research Partners and former director of the clinical exercise physiology program at Benedictine University, also is part of the research team along with KNPE laboratory coordinator Amy Flewelling. Broeder pedaled 9,000 miles over 100 days last summer to help the fight against ovarian cancer, which has afflicted his wife, Kay.

“Everything has just come together this year, and now is as good a time as any, I guess,” Carpenter says. “There has been a whole raft of things to do, and the physical training has probably been the easiest part of it.”

Friends and colleagues can track Carpenter’s progress during the race via the Internet.

The official site will include written blogs and video logs as well as the times of Carpenter’s check points and the others in the race.

Carpenter also has his own site – – and will maintain a Facebook page (it’s open to Facebook users who search for “Team Carpenter – RAAM2010”) and a Twitter feed under “pjcuk.”