Move over, Dara Torres, there’s a new mom in town poised to inspire women over 40 to achieve their athletic dreams, no excuses allowed.
Unlike Ms. Torres, who’s athletic success as a swimmer spanned over two decades before she became the poster mom for 40-plus women’s fitness, Sandy Earl was a self-professed soccer mom right through her early 30s. Now 45 years old with 19 and 21-year old children, Sandy holds records at many of the most prestigious ultracycling races across the United States, proving women who weren’t born athletic prodigies can still achieve seemingly insurmountable fitness goals.
Sandy’s choice of sport, however, is probably why, despite her accomplishments, she’s not the current inspirational figure to housewives across the country with dreams of achieving personal fitness goals.
Ultracycling is a relatively unknown, underground sport. Ultracycle.net defines an ultracycling ride as one that is at least 150 miles long, making allowances for climbing.
In 1999, Sandy chose the Furnace Creek 508 as her first major ultracycling race when her entry to Ironman Canada was not received on time. As the name indicates, the Furnace Creek race is 508 miles long. Sandy was the second woman to cross the finish line, finishing in 41 hours, 6 minutes, and 34 seconds, and qualifying for Race Across America.
She was hooked.
The next year, she took on Race Across Oregon, another 500-plus mile race during which she encountered innumerable snowstorms. She was the only woman to finish that year.
Sandy also set course records at a 24-hour race in Iowa in 2000 and 2001, and still holds the female course record at Calvin’s Challenge, a 12-hour cycling race in Ohio, at 249 miles. She also holds the 12 and 24-hour records at the Davis 12 and 24-hour challenge, setting the new female 24-hour record in 2008, at the age of 44.
Sandy has found her calling. Not everyone has the mental fortitude to complete such events—or the luck Sandy has had. In fact, the worst thing that has ever happened to her was taking in too
much caffeine at the 2001 event in Iowa. “I finished that race so cranky!” she says.
Ultracycling is far from risk-free, a fact Sandy knows all too well. The events are not held on closed courses, and traffic is not always respectful of cyclists. Particularly on the freeway, like I-10, on which Sandy rode when she attempted the 3,000-plus mile holy grail of American ultracycling, Race Across America (RAAM), in 2002. (Sandy rode 1,000 miles in 4 days before making the gut-wrenching decision to pull out.)
However, maybe even greater than the physical risk is the polarizing effect becoming an ultracyclist can have on the cyclist’s family.
The training and racing “has definitely brought my daughter and I closer together,” Sandy says. Her daughter, now in college, crews many of her events. But, she adds, “I blew a marriage over it.”
Sandy’s foray into the world of ultracycling, she explains, was “a symptom more than anything else” of a struggling marriage. Her rides made her feel good about herself, and her strength, and gave her a sense of personal accomplishment in difficult times.
Despite tough setbacks at home and on the road (Sandy took several years off from racing after feeling depressed about not having finished RAAM), Sandy has found strength and inspiration in the ultracycling community.
As Sandy explains, “You’re not doing [an ultra event] by yourself. And you’re doing it totally by yourself, which is the coolest part of the thing.” A competitor cannot compete without a solid crew, who makes sure the athlete has what she needs to make it through the event—clothes, food, water, helpful words, music, light at night, etc. But in the end, its up to the athlete to be physically and mentally prepared to race.
Acting as a crew member for friends in countless races, Sandy felt blessed to be “a part of a community of awesome people who do this too.”
After 2006, she did the math and realized that she’d done Race Across Oregon three times, and crewed for friends four times, so, she says, “that means I get to race it again to even the score!” Sandy is currently gearing up for this year’s Race Across Oregon, starting in Hood River, Oregon, on July 11th.
Sandy’s can-do attitude is positively infectious, and certainly part of the reason she’s been so successful as an ultracyclist. She is quick to point out that “the 50-plus women’s record [for RAAM] is out there, and you talk about a 5 year goal, I’m 45 right now. I can see doing that.”
The tale of Sandy’s transformation from soccer mom to elite ultracyclist should inspire women of all ages to pursue their athletic goals—no Olympic medals needed.