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Friday, Dec 28 2012 12:03 AM

Race of a lifetime

By Kelly DamianPhots by Felix Adamo

In 1952, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited Mount Everest. They were drawn to the top of the mountain by a need to do something that no human had ever done before, to stand on the top of the world, even if for just a moment. Their achievement sparked a fire in thousands of adventure seekers, and since that day, about 4,000 people have reached the top of Mount Everest.

Right here in the United States, there is another tremendous journey that hundreds of people undertake each year. Like Everest, it is an expedition requiring precise planning, intensive physical training, and a willingness to push the body and mind to their breaking points. But unlike Everest, only 813 people have managed to complete this journey.

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This is the first in a four-part feature on local athlete Kimberly Keathley, who has quickly made her mark in the cycling world. Soon, she will ride in the race of her life — the Race Across America. In this series — which starts with this issue and culminates in the August issue — get to know Keathley as she prepares for the arduous race, learn about her purpose for racing, and tag along during the highs and lows of the competition.

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Keathley's rise through the ranks of USA Cycling's women's division has been astounding.

Kimberly Keathley has no problem keeping up with the men as they head up China Grade Loop. In fact she's the only rider smiling at this point of her morning training ride.

It's still pitch-dark as Keathley prepares for a training ride.

Keathley chats with (left to right) Anthony Finocchiaro, Courtland Keith and Carl Crawford prior to the start of their 6 a.m. training ride.

Using bright headlights for safety, the cyclists head down Morning Drive northeast of Panorama Drive. Keathley is fifth from right.

This year, one local woman is determined to join the ranks of those select athletes who have completed what has been described as "the world's toughest bike race."

Race Across America

It's called Race Across America, or RAAM for short, and is a 3,000-mile bike race that begins in Oceanside in June and ends in Anapolis, Md. Solo riders have to finish in at least 12 days, and fast solo riders will finish in a little more than eight days. The route goes through the deserts in the Southwest, the extreme elevation of the Rocky Mountains, and the flatness of the prairies.

There is no alloted time for rest or sleep. Fifty percent of the racers won't finish. In the 30 years of the race, cyclists have been hit by cars, been forcibly taken off the course by ambulance and have hallucinated to the point of temporary madness.

There are two ways to participate in the race: on a team or as a solo competitor. Most of the solo competitors are middle-aged men with years of racing and riding experience under their spandex belts. This year there will be a new face in the crowd.

At 23 years old and 5-feet, 4-inches tall, with big brown eyes and an effervescent personality that might seem more suited to a Disney fairy than serious cyclist, Kimberly Keathley doesn't exude the gravitas of a seasoned athlete.

But underneath Kimberly's bubbly exterior is a highly disciplined competitor intent on riding her bike for 3,000 miles as fast as she possibly can.

'Baptism by fire'

When Kimberly turned 21 -- on June 29, 2011 -- she got a road bike for her birthday: a blue and white Trek Madone. A few days later she went on a group ride with Hank Pfister, a family friend and her high school tennis coach.

She described that first ride as "baptism by fire."

"I had to hang on for dear life and pedal the bike absolutely hard as I could until I couldn't keep up any more," she said.

Courtland Keith -- a 25-year cycling veteran and cycling coach with Peak's Coaching Group -- remembers Kimberly on that first ride.

"She was instantly apparent because it's pretty much a male-dominated sport. So you see a girl, she stands out," Keith said. "And she was up in the front of the group on the climbs, making her presence known even though she didn't know what the heck she was doing."

That summer, Kimberly rode her bike constantly. She learned how to draft, when to exert maximum effort, and when to back off. And she was able to relax and enjoy the speed of flying downhill with scant protection between her and the road.

A bumpy start

On Aug. 15, 2011 she joined Bakersfield cyclists Garreth Feldstein and Tyler Williams for a ride up to Glenn-ville. After a morning of riding, Kimberly followed Gareth and Tyler down the mountain, hitting speeds up to 40 miles an hour, when she was surprised by an unexpectedly sharp turn.

"I didn't really know the roads or the turns, and I was going faster than what I had the confidence to maneuver."

The bike's tire slid out from under her moments before her body slammed into the mountainside.

The crash, which took place on a Sunday, left her with a concussion, three broken ribs and a broken clavicle. Still fuzzy from the concussion, her first question when she got home was: "So do you guys think I'll be able to ride on Tuesday?"

The road to recovery

A week after the accident, she started her senior year of college with her arm in a sling. For her clavicle to heal, her shoulder had to be completely immobilized. She learned to do daily tasks with one hand, and because of her injured ribs, she slept upright in a recliner.

But she missed riding her bike. So much so that she would sneak into the spin room at the gym. There, with her arm secured to her torso by an ACE bandage, she would pedal just enough to get the feeling of riding again.

The accident worried her parents, but it did not shock them.

"She's always been that way," father Duane explained. "She wanted to go as fast as the fastest person."

Her mother Corey remembered that as a child, Kimberly was very active. But what set her apart from other children was her total lack of fear. When she was just 2 years old, she would jump from the diving board and swim the length of the pool. From there followed gymnastics, rollerblading and skiing. No matter the sport, Kimberly would find the limits of her body and push past them.

The moment she was cleared by her doctor, Kimberly jumped on her bike. After a few months back in the saddle, she decided to give racing a try.

Racing to the top

For racing purposes, USA Cycling divides riders into categories based on their experience and race results. There are four categories for female competitors: Category 4 is for novice racers, and Category 1 is reserved for Olympic and professional cyclists.

To move into the higher categories, a cyclist needs a certain amount of points that are accumulated during the racing season. The higher the rider in each race, and the bigger the competitive field, the more points the cyclist gets.

Kimberly participated in her first race in February of 2011 as a Category 4 racer. By June of 2012, she had competed in 20 races -- finishing in third place or higher in half of them -- and was upgraded to Category 2.

"It's just mind boggling," said Courtland Keith, "... the acceleration she's moved through."

Hank Pfister agreed.

"She is one of the fastest in Southern California in her division, and everyone knows who she is when she rolls up to the start line," Pfister said.

A seed is planted

Her progress caught the attention of local RAAM record holder Joe Petersen, and he invited her to join his eight-person tandem team to compete in the Race Across America in June of 2011. The team set the eight-person tandem team record when they finished the race in less than six days.

Kimberly wrapped up her senior year in college in May, continued racing and was accepted to several big-name universities for graduate school to study physical therapy. Things were moving along nicely, except something was nagging at her.

"This seed was planted in my mind of what it would be like to do solo Race Across America," she said. "It gave me the chills thinking about it."

She kept this notion to herself, and in the meantime turned down the University of Southern California in favor of Chapman University. She filled out her school paperwork and prepared to begin her training in physical therapy in the fall of 2012.

But RAAM had its teeth in her, and it wouldn't let go.

Finally she called her friend and role model Tricia Bland, a cancer survivor, ultra-endurance athlete and a trainer. Kimberly held her opinion in high esteem.

"I called her and poured my heart out," Kimberly said. "RAAM was this fantasy, a futuristic goal, but I was really, really drawn to it."

After a long conversation and a look at the pros and cons, Tricia encouraged her to go for it. This meant Kimberly would leave behind graduate school for now and reapply for the 2013 school year.

"This is something she's been gifted with," Bland said. "She has the muscle mass. She's got that drive. She's got that perseverance."

When Kimberly hung up the phone, she couldn't wipe the smile off her face. That was on June 27, nearly two years from the date she got her bike.

Solo, but not alone

The average person may have trouble understanding the appeal of Race Across America. It is a slow, grueling journey fraught with physical pain, emotional struggle and sleep deprivation. However, it is also an expedition across the entire landscape of America, away from the sterility and shelter of the airplanes, train or automobile. It is a chance for athletes to test their mettle, to discover they are capable of far more than they ever imagined.

They find "that untapped human potential that most people don't even come close to reaching," Joe Petersen explains.

"I think elite athletes get closer, sometimes dangerously close to that full 100 percent physical potential," he said.

This race will fulfill not only a personal goal for Kimberly, but also will raise money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. In 2011, mother Corey Keathley was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. The news shook the family to the core, and Kimberly wants to give back to the group that supported her mother through her diagnoses and treatment.

When Kimberly waits at the starting line in Oceanside, she will benefit from the wisdom of the local cycling community, the support of her family and a deep sense of faith.

Joe Petersen said he thinks there is one more thing that she needs.

"Whether it's crewing or sponsoring or encouraging," he said, "I would love to see Bakersfield get behind Kimberly on this."

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