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Alumni Race Across Country

Chuck Thorpe at finish

After racing their bikes more than 3,000 miles as part of the Race Across America (RAAM), North Park University alumni Doug and Chuck Thorpe say they’ll never do it again. But they also wouldn’t trade the experience.

The Thorpes and two teammates began in Oceanside, California, on June 11 and finished in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 20. Team members ride in a relay format and ride 24 hours a day through 14 states and terrain that rises a cumulative 100,000 feet.

Why take on a challenge that most people might consider…well, foolish? Doug had 10 years of serious biking experience and had completed a number of rides longer than 100 miles but had never participated in an organized race prior to RAAM.

“I turned 50 this May, and a serious physical challenge seemed to be a good way to mark that event,” says Doug, (C’81, S’82) an ordained Evangelical Covenant Church minister who is now a counselor at the Center for Pastoral Counseling in Virginia and co-director of its residency program. “Doing it with a number of family members was a big plus.”

Over the last seven years, Chuck (C’79), who is dean of the Carnegie Mellon University campus in the Middle East nation of Qatar, has run ultra-marathons—trail runs that stretched between 30 and 50 miles. “So when the opportunity came to do something like this, it sounded like a fun challenge,” he says. Until this past spring, however, he had never ridden a bike more than 50 miles. (To read an earlier news story on Chuck and his work in Qatar, click here.)

A friend of Doug’s who had previously raced in the event encouraged the brothers to join his four-person team. Later, the friend bowed out due to the demands of a home remodeling project. It would be the first—but not the last—time the Thorpes would have to make a decision about whether to continue. They chose to stay, but the friend’s decision meant the entire team would be rookies with RAAM.

In the end, the team included Doug’s friend Mike Leamon, also a member of the same cycling club; and Chuck’s colleague Majd Sakr, who runs the computer science group at Carnegie Mellon in Qatar. They called themselves Team 2600 and posted a team blog.

When it came time to choose the seven-person crew that would accompany them in a support van and RV, more family members joined the team. Chuck’s wife, Leslie, became crew chief.

“Just for the record, I tried to talk the guys out of it, but in 27 years of marriage I have succeeded in almost never talking Chuck out of anything, and never when it involves his brother,” says Leslie. “At that point I was the only wife who did not have a full-time job commitment, so I was nominated crew chief.”

Roger Thorpe (C’51), a physician and retired Covenant missionary, joined the crew to watch his sons race and to act as health advisor. “Roger came along to make sure the guys survived this, and the others were talked into being on the crew by various incentives, from new bikes, to the adventure of it all, to the promise of a car to use next year in college,” Leslie says.

Other team members included Don Thorpe, the brothers’ uncle; Bill Anderson, Roger and Don’s cousin; Hanna Thorpe, Chuck’s daughter; Peter Olfelt, the Thorpe brothers’ nephew; and Nisreen, Majd’s girlfriend. Nisreen was visiting the United States from Lebanon for the first time. “What a way to see the U.S. for the first time—driving 15 mph all the way across!” Chuck says. (For further comments click here.)

Months of training preceded the race. “Since I did almost all my training in Qatar, I told the others I would specialize in the hot, dry, flat parts of the race,” Chuck says. “The highest elevation in Qatar isn’t much over 100 feet, so I had no place to practice hill climbing; but when we got nasty winds, I would get a chance to work hard for an extended period of time going upwind.”

There were important physical adjustments. “A big part of training was getting used to sitting on a bike saddle that many hours!” Chuck says.

“The hardest part about racing was getting back on the bike, hour after hour and day after day, in the afternoon heat and in the darkest times of the night,” Doug says. “The legs hurt and did not want to move, the mind wanted to sleep, and riding did not seem like such an attractive way to spend the next hour.”

When not racing, team members took four-hour sleep breaks in the moving RV, or one-hour catnaps in the van. “In my running days, even in my longest runs, I slept in a real bed, went out and ran a long time, then took a shower and slept in a real bed again,” Chuck says.

On two occasions, the team’s race nearly ended early due to illness and injury. One of the most difficult sections came in the Rocky Mountains on the event’s third day. “We realized that we were in danger of missing the 72-hour cutoff in Taos, 1,044 miles into the race,” Doug says. “Majd was sick and could not ride, so the other three of us had to carry the team over two 10,000-foot mountain passes.”

“We rode as hard as we could all afternoon, switching off rapidly and riding at maximum intensity,” says Doug, who lived up to his “Rocket Man” nickname. “I rode the last leg into Taos and made the cutoff with six minutes to spare. Then I collapsed in exhaustion.”

On the fifth day of the race, team member Mike Leamon crashed and injured his shoulder, knocking him out of the rest of the race. That meant there would be only three racers instead of four. The team had to decide once again whether to continue.

Mike was treated at a hospital and then rode in the RV, helping to navigate for the next 18 hours before leaving the team in St. Louis. “After witnessing his determination, the rest of us absolutely had to keep going,” says Doug. “We knew it would be much harder with only three riders, but we believed we could make it.”

That belief would be challenged when the riders hit West Virginia on the seventh day of racing. “The mountains are not as tall as the Rockies, but the roads climb more steeply,” Chuck says. “One pitch is so steep the RAAM Route Book warns that you might have to walk up it. We managed to ride.”

The team was encouraged when friends from the Stoneridge Covenant Church in Allison Park, Pennsylvania, traveled to Parkersburg, West Virginia, to cheer the riders. Also showing up were friends from Qatar and Chuck’s son, Leland.

Throughout the race, the riders had to fight mental fatigue as well as physical exhaustion. For inspiration, they turned to hymns and show tunes. “We got to Taos exhausted, and Bill Anderson started singing that old Swedish hymn, ‘Why Should I Be Anxious?’ ” Chuck recalls. Of course there was plenty of reasons, given that they had just barely made the cutoff.

The hymn repertoire also included “O Let Your Soul Now Be Filled with Gladness” and “In the Springtime Fair but Mortal,” says Chuck, adding, “I bet the hymn writers never thought that you can ride a bike to their music!” Across the plains, the musical choice was more obvious, as team members belted out, “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.”

The team swept into Annapolis eight days, 15 hours, and 33 minutes from the time they started, having covered 3,014.4 miles. They averaged 14.52 mph. And they finished last.

Team members discussed whether they would try again next year. It was a short discussion. “I don’t think I’ll ever do this again,” Doug says. “I showed myself I could do it. Now I want my normal life back.”

Chuck ushers an emphatic, “No!” when asked if he would enter again. “It took a huge family effort to make this happen, and it took a year of hard training. Time to do something else!"