Some celebrate turning 50 years old with birthday cake and black balloons, or champagne and a nice dinner out, even buying a new car or traveling to Paris.
Paula Stewart plans to spend as many as 12 grueling hours on a bicycle traversing a Colorado mountain’s rocky path at nearly two miles above sea level.
“I enjoy life!” she said.
Yeah, but what about pain and fatigue and the possibility of riding through a torrential downpour with quarter-size hail, thunder and lightning, and being on the verge of hypothermia like you endured when training on the Colorado course in June?
She described that experience as literally “sucking the will to live out of your soul?”
“Well, it’s such a mental game. You have to coach yourself through it,” she said. “The adrenaline kicks in and you go.”
Stewart is the assistant swim coach and director of the wellness program at Wilmington College, along with being, among others, a certified yoga, spinning and personal training instructor, and strength and conditioning coach at both WC and Get Fit in Wilmington. Also, she’s a second-degree black belt in Bushido karate.
She has a long history of competing in running and cycling road races, karate contests, triathlons and Ironmans — more than 600! In fact, she celebrated both her 40th and 45th birthdays by undergoing the rigors of the Ironman Triathlon’s 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and 26.2-mile run.
That’s all in one glorious day — at least that’s how she’d describe it.
On Aug. 13, Stewart will compete in the famed Race Across the Sky, a 105-mile mountain bike race based in Leadville, Colorado. Always up for a challenge, she and her husband, Kent, have cycled around the historic mountain town (elevation, 10,200 feet) many times while exploring Colorado.
Last year, she purchased a course map of the prestigious endurance race that has, through the years, attracted such world class cyclists as Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis.
Stewart’s research revealed that half of the women in her age group were unable to finish last year’s event and she was delighted to learn that just as many “flatlanders” from places like Ohio as locals from high-elevation, Rocky Mountain towns were successful.
Since she hadn’t participated in a qualifying race for Leadville, Stewart successfully gained entrance via a lottery system that relegates her starting position to the back of the 1,400-cyclist field as part of the massive “white wave” of competitors that will need to carefully maneuver the inherent bottlenecks located early the course. “It’s going to take patience,” she said.
Maintaining good physical fitness and nutrition are priorities in her life. But preparing for Leadville requires special training.
The day after the swim team’s final competition in February, Stewart began an intensive and focused regimen. She’s cycled more than 1,500 road miles and completed 75 hours of indoor cycling, 75 hours of strength training and 30 hours of yoga in the six-month run-up to Aug. 13. She’s even ridden stationary bikes in front of a TV screen playing highlights of the 2009 Leadville race won by Armstrong.
Indeed, she shared that experience with her Spinning class at Get Fit complete with passing out energy bars.
Watching the video came before actually training on the Leadville course in June.
“The video touches it, but actually being there is a lot more impactful with its gravel, dirt, rocks — and elevation. The course is far more challenging than I had anticipated with the horrific amount of climbing and the crazy descents, but that’s Colorado for you!” she said.
“The climbs are brutal. Out there, there’s no recovery from climbs at that altitude.”
Stewart used terms like “burn your matches” and “Colorado lungs” when describing an impossibly steep, 16-mile ascent during a thunderstorm when the extreme pitch during the final two miles to the summit prohibited her from ever surpassing 5 miles an hour.
“I climbed and, in spite of the storm, I said, ‘I’ve come this far. I need to go to the summit,’” she said. “I was shaking so badly; it was so cold my teeth were chattering. I was a mess, but I kept pushing. I needed to get a feel for what Columbine (the highest point on the course at 12,400 feet) was like.”
The 16-mile “Columbine climb” takes most riders two-and-a-half hours to reach the top and 20 minutes to descend that section of the course. “I’ve never been so happy to see my car in my life,” she added. “I could have worn snow boots and a ski jacket and still be cold.”
The challenges of riding at high altitudes cannot be overstated. Stewart explained, “At altitude, it’s the difference between riding in Ohio at 65 degrees, low humidity and 95 degrees with high humidity.”
She’s no novice at maneuvering mountains on a bike as Stewart has successfully climbed two of Colorado’s famed Fourteen-ers, Pike’s Peak and Mount Evans, albeit those trails feature more bike-friendly surfaces than Leadville’s crags and rocky, ever-changing terrain.
“Those rides are all stored in my memory,” she said.
She stayed with her daughter Kasey’s family in the Denver area while training in June, starting with lower-intensity rides on trails near the Mile High City to get used to the altitude before spending four days training on segments of the Leadville course, all of which are higher than 10,000 feet above sea level. She solo camped in a tent each of those nights.
“The riding was all by myself, so I had to be super careful. Every ride has been a learning experience,” she said, noting that training on the racecourse boosted her confidence in having a successful race in August. “Technique-wise, even at that altitude, I still have riding skills and my bike is working great. I feel solid on the bike and, out there, nothing intimidated me. Plus, the scenery is spectacular!”
She rides a 26-pound, carbon fiber Pivot Mach IV equipped with wider than normal mountain bike tires for traversing rocky terrain. “You pick a line on the course, and it takes care of you,” she said.
Stewart is a lifelong athlete and competitor, formerly engaged in basketball, swimming, track, running road races and karate.
In more recent years, her focus has been on cycling as knee issues and a pair of arthroscopic surgeries have limited her motivation for competitive running. “I’m drawn more toward individual sports like cycling now. It’s you against the clock. There’s no gray line, no referee, either you win or lose,” she said.
She became inextricably attracted to cycling when the Stewarts ran a bicycle shop near the Wilmington College in the late ’90s and she enjoyed instant success in cycling competitions.
“It was something that came naturally for me,” she said. “I quickly realized I could actually be competitive on a mountain bike. I was catching up to the more experienced guys and went from beginner to expert level in a year.”
So impressive was her speedy learning curve, the SoBe/Cannondale Grass Roots Race Team invited her to race nationally in the summer of 2002.
Her Leadville competition also has repercussions on her role as a coach, as swimming, like cycling, often can be a solitary endeavor with delayed gratification. “I know Leadville is going to hurt but I’m excited. I talk to my athletes about stepping out of their comfort zones,” she added.
Hands-on at WC
It also has positive repercussions to give Wilmington College exercise science students a hands-on learning opportunity.
During her six months of intensive training, she sought the expertise of Dr. Matthew Bliss, assistant professor and director of WC’s exercise science program. He completed his Ph.D. dissertation on cyclists racing at altitude.
The program’s sophisticated equipment features a VO2 Max Test, a stationary bicycle whose controls can simulate climbs and the lower oxygen levels found at high altitudes while determining an athlete’s maximum cardiac response to the physical stress involving lungs, muscles and blood vessels.
When tested in early May, Stewart was already pushing the 100 percentile of her age group in reaching her VO2 peak, which measured her ability to generate energy and utilize oxygen under physical stress.
With the calendar now turning to August, Stewart eagerly anticipates the impending Leadville race realizing, “There’s no turning back. I compare it to being seven months pregnant — it’s going to happen no matter what,” she said.
She hopes her dedication to achieving this goal could inspire others to exceed their comfort zones and pursue something difficult that takes such intensive preparation, commitment and perseverance. “Maybe there’s somebody who’s turning 30 or 40 or 50 that thinks, ‘If she can do it, so can I,’” Stewart said.
But, then again, there’s always birthday cake, champagne, Paris and black balloons.