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Friday, Feb 22 2013 12:03 AM

Beyond the bike

By Kelly Damian

Interstate 50 is a knife slash across the state of Nevada. Brown tufts of scrub poke out of the snow that blanket the valley floor. Bakersfield's Kimberly Keathley, riding her bike eastward toward Utah, paints a solitary picture in the early grey light. It is Nov. 10, and she is attempting to set a record for an eastbound crossing of the state of Nevada. Doing so will qualify her to participate in the Race Across America, an arduous 3,000-mile bike race that begins in Oceanside in June and ends in Annapolis, Md.

The ride has not gone well. Kimberly scheduled this record attempt weeks earlier. A winter storm blew in unexpectedly, and rather than cancel, Kimberly decided to alter her plans. To arrive at the highest elevation during daylight hours, she started the course at 9:30 p.m. the previous night. Now, the next morning and 150 miles into the ride, the temperature outside is 19 degrees. Kimberly is averaging 19 mph -- when she is on the bike, the air feels like 4 degrees. She is wearing layers upon layers of clothes, and her drinks are being prepared with hot water instead of cold; even so, her extremities are numb and a good rhythm has been elusive.

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About this series

This is the final part in a feature on local athlete Kimberly Keathley -- who has quickly made her mark in the cycling world -- and her quest to prepare for the Race Across America. In Bakersfield Life's January issue, we met Kimberly and learned her purpose for cycling. In this closing article, Kimberly is faced with the realities of doing the race solo, and makes a difficult decision.

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Kimmy Keathley, right and her mom Coreypose for a photo before a morning ride.

Kimmy Keathley, left, and her mom Corey pose for a quick portrait before leaving on a morning ride.

Kimmy Keathley, right and her mom Corey go for a morning ride.

Kimmy Keathley, left and her mom Corey go for a morning ride.

At 7:47 a.m. something breaks up the monotony of the road. A man standing next to a crumpled truck in a ditch waves to the SUV trailing the cyclist. Keith Barnden, Kimberly's crew chief, pulls over and taps on the horn, signaling Kimberly to stop.

Keith runs 20 yards across the snowy ground to the ditch. The truck's roof is flattened. Its wheels are bent out of shape and wedged a foot deep into the dirt. Every window has been shattered and bits of hair and blood are stuck in the driver's side door frame. Cables, tools and deer chops wrapped in white paper litter the ground. Wedged behind the wheel is an elderly man. Half his face is covered in brown dirt and the other half in blood. He moans softly and his eyes flutter open and closed.

"What happened?" he whispers.

Keith runs back to the car for blankets and a first aid kit. The injured man's name is Bob, and he is 68 years old. Keith tucks a blanket around him, and covers the injured man with whatever else might keep him warm: a scarf around his head, a pair of pants across his chest. Bob is prodded into talking, but he is disoriented and in pain.

When his truck veered off the road and rolled into the ditch, it kicked up enough dust to catch the attention of the snowplow driver. If not for that cloud of dust, the accident may have gone unnoticed by the few drivers blasting by at 60 mph. An ambulance has been called, but this stretch of road between Reno and Eureka is dotted with only a few towns, many so small that they don't even have their own police departments.

Help is a long way off. For now Kimberly's ride is on hold.

An hour passes, and still there is no ambulance. Kimberly's second support vehicle arrives and Marsha Barnden, a nurse and an official for the ride, evaluates Bob and determines that while he is definitely hurting, there is nothing anyone can do other than keep him warm. The decision is made that the fresh crew will continue to follow Kimberly, while the other crew will stay with Bob.

Kimberly suits up again. She digs the snow out of her cleats, replenishes her drink bottles, and at 9:17 a.m. she is off.

The ambulance finally comes, and once Bob is in the hands of the paramedics, Keith drives ahead to check on Kimberly. What he sees does not look good.

At mile 185, her legs are no longer the relentless pistons they were the previous night; they move slowly, knees popping out slightly. Icicles hang from the bike's handlebars, fork, cables and cassette rings. The brake pads are coated with a layer of ice. The storm is not over, and at three hours behind schedule, she will not reach the state line before dark.

Keith drives up next to her, rolls down his window and shouts, "You want to stop?"

Tears pour down Kimberly's cheeks. She nods. No record would be made today.

A higher purpose

"There is a line between determination and stupidity. At what expense do you cross it?" Kimberly said later when reflecting on her first record attempt. "I wanted so incredibly badly to reach the state line no matter what, but would it be worth it to tear up my knees and possibly become uncontrollably hypothermic and be so far from help?"

As she saw it, the record attempt was an opportunity to practice many things she would need to do for Race Across America: organizing a crew, finding officials, working out logistics and submitting paperwork.

"I did my very best with the circumstances I was faced with. I realized ultimately that no matter how well one plans for things, life is beyond our control," she said.

She also wondered if God had placed her there in that empty bit of Nevada specifically for the purpose of helping the injured driver.

Coming across the man in the crumpled truck reminded her of the higher purpose behind her bike riding.

"God blessed me with this passion for cycling unlike any passion I've had for anything else," the 23-year-old said. "I want to use the talent and passion that I've been blessed with to honor God by making a difference in the world."

That difference Kimberly wants to make a difference includes raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

One of one million

Just more than 1 million Americans are living with, or are in remission from, leukemia, Hodgkin lymphoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma or myeloma. In November of 2011, Kimberly's mother, Corey Keathley, became one of them when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

In some ways, the diagnosis was a relief. Corey had been feeling awful for months -- unable to eat or sleep, dealing with heartburn and exhaustion -- and it was good to put a name to her symptoms. On the other hand, lymphoma is cancer, and cancer is dangerous.

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society became a source of information and support for Corey.

"I was a student of lymphoma," she said.

On the society's website she found an accurate description of her disease, details about the latest breakthroughs in treatment, and a source of emotional support.

While receiving her initial eight-hour round of chemotherapy, she got a phone call from a woman named Cheryl, a mentor from a peer-to-peer support program called First Connection. The society matched the two women together because Cheryl, too, had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She knew what Corey was going through, both physically and emotionally.

"Talking about it, and finding out about it helps," Corey explained.

In the chemo room, talking to Cheryl and surrounded by people who were frail, bald and much sicker than she, Corey felt fortunate.

"Going through this gives you a whole new level of compassion," she said.

Corey received seven more treatments of Rituxan, and on Sept. 5, 2012, she found out that her cancer was in remission. Now she is a trained First Connection mentor and is looking forward to being a source of support for other people.

"There is comfort in being other-oriented, in helping others," Corey explained.

Changing course

This June, Kimberly and Corey Keathley will participate in "America's Most Beautiful Bike Ride," a 100-mile journey around Lake Tahoe. The money they raise together will be donated to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Kimberly will not compete in the Race Across American this summer after all. The ultra-endurance training resulted in constant knee injuries, and a mild food allergy turned into a complete intolerance for all forms of dairy.

On top of that, she received an invitation to race for the Spy-Giant-Ride elite women's cycling team.

"I love racing," Kimberly said. "That's been my passion since day one. I fell in love with it on the first group ride even when I got blown out the back and thought my lungs and legs were going to erupt in flames."

The decision to change plans was not an easy one to make. It was preceded by hours of soul-searching, days of prayer and quite a lot of tears.

"I felt that I couldn't let down the people who expressed admiration for my goal, and feared disappointing people who I believed expected me to accomplish the endeavor."

Kimberly, like so many young people, is learning about the fine balance between ambition, commitment and flexibility. She is discovering that sometimes a plan must be muscled forward, but other times it is wise to follow the path as it unfolds. She is balancing the honor of being of service to others along with the importance of listening to the voice inside of her.

It is not always easy. The way is not always clear. It is the tough work of being human.

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