June 9, 2008
for healthy future
By Carol Clark
The toughest bike race of Julie Gazmararian’s life was also her most recent.
“For the first 21 hours, it was raining the whole time,” she says, describing the major challenge she faced during the “Heart of the South” event in April. The ultra cycling marathon through Alabama and Georgia covers more than 500 miles over two days.
“I was soaked. My skin became shriveled, like when you swim a long time,” says Gazmararian, associate professor of epidemiology in the Rollins School of Public Health. “My clothes had to be peeled off me when the rain finally stopped.”
Then there was the freak hailstorm during the 24-hour Bike Sebring race in Florida last year. Her family supported her during this event, and her husband, Paul Foster, even fixed her a warm burrito during the middle of the night. “That’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” she says.
Gazmararian, 46, led the pack for her classification in both events, which qualified her for an even bigger challenge: the Race Across the West, or RAW, which begins June 8 near San Diego and ends 1,000 miles later in Taos, New Mexico. Gazmararian is one of only three women who have signed on as solo contestants for RAW, which has a time limit of three days and 20 hours.
By competing in RAW, she hopes to raise awareness for some of her favorite causes: Bike Emory, Emory’s sustainability initiatives, and combating childhood obesity. Her family provides a more personal motivation.
“I want to be a good role model for my two children, in terms of setting a high goal and working towards it over a long haul,” Gazmararian says.
“My major goal is to have fun and to cheer Mom on,” pipes in Alex, 11, who has bounded into the family living room with his brother Isaac, 7. “I’m going to get to be in five new states! I’ve seen mountains, but I’ve never seen the desert.”
Gazmararian’s family and other members of her support team will follow her in a van and a recreational vehicle as she pedals round-the-clock, taking only occasional cat naps, through temperatures that can range from 22 degrees to 104.
If she completes RAW, she hopes to up the ante next year by entering the Race Across America — a 12-day, 3,000-mile transcontinental ride, billed as one of the toughest endurance events in the world. She has twice qualified for Race Across America and says RAW will be a test of her commitment.
Gazmararian was active growing up in Michigan and started competing in triathlons in graduate school. “It becomes a habit, like brushing your teeth,” she says of her intensive training. “After you get over the initial pain, you don’t feel good if you don’t do it.”
She rises as early as 4 a.m. for a group ride when Atlanta roads are quiet and before her sons wake up. She also rides with Sorella Cycling, an all-women biking club. “It’s a juggle,” she says. “I don’t have much time for anything else but my family, work and training.”
The entire family enjoys mountain biking together — her husband uses an off-road unicycle. “Biking’s fun!” says Isaac, who took his training wheels off when he was 3. “You can get exercise and get your body moving.”