By: Doreen Marcial Poreba
JUPITER, FL – July 3, 2021 – Driving across America from the West Coast to the East Coast of the United States in less than a week by car may seem like a tall order for some people but to accomplish that feat by bicycle seems almost impossible.
But that’s exactly what Chris Huffman, 69, of Juno Beach and his three teammates are seeking to do as participants of the upcoming Race Across America (RAAM), promoted as “the world’s toughest bicycle race.”
Joining Huffman are Michel Chabot, 54, of Juno Beach and Montreal; Kathy Petrillo, 59, of Jupiter; and Matt Shippee, 64, of Jupiter.
This ultra-endurance event has been challenging ultracyclists internationally for 38 years, testing not just their physical limits but their mental limits as well. The route begins in Oceanside, CA and covers more than 3,000 miles, climbs 175,000 feet, goes through 12 states and finishes in Annapolis, MD.
Huffman’s four-person team, known as “The Opportunists,” is competing in the ages 60-69 mixed team category. The current record in that category is seven days and 53 minutes.
“We believe we’ll probably do it in six days and 18 hours,” said Huffman. “As our teammate Kathy says, ‘I’m not into breaking records, I’m into setting records.’”
The team’s confidence comes from knowing the individual accomplishments from previous performances, both RAAM and other events, and their training rituals.
Strategy is as much a factor as physical and mental endurance. With four racers, Huffman’s team pairs two bicyclists who go on 12-hour shifts.
“We’ll be trading off being on the road on a bike, only one rider at a time,” explained Huffman. “One racer goes as hard as he or she can for a half hour and then we switch.”
The pair have a van that follows the racers. The other two racers have their own van and they follow the same routine going across the country. In all, the team has three support vans, an RV and a support team of 14 people who help out as needed, such as preparing meals.
The race is monitored very closely with time stations every 55 miles and race officials going out on the course to make sure everyone is following the rules. Their main focus is safety. If anyone is caught breaking any safety rules, a time penalty is imposed.
“It takes such a commitment from getting yourself in the kind of shape you need to be in to be doing more than 3,000 miles in less than seven days,” said Huffman. “It’s a big task. This is a race…it ain’t no tour.”
Despite being the only female on the team, Petrillo feels right at home. “It feels natural to me and exciting to be racing with a lot of super-duper guys,” said Petrillo. “I feel a little pressure because we’re going after a record of an all-male team, but we are ultra-motivated to go ahead and break the record – even beyond a mixed team. Male, female, age, doesn’t matter to me, it’s about going out and just doing it.”
She certainly knows how to get it done, having set two national records at the National Senior Games in 2019 where she won four gold medals. She and her teammates also have won numerous other awards but their passion goes beyond just competing in a race, winning awards and setting records. The team is using this race to raise funds for the Opportunity Early Childhood Education and Family Center, a charity founded in 1939 for at-risk, underprivileged children.
“You actually get this lifelong memory and bond going across the country with the goal of raising money for a charity, going as fast as you can,” said Huffman. “It’s a great camaraderie and accomplishment…it’s magical…to think you’ve done it on a bike in the time you’ve done it and everyone has worked together to make it happen.”
Both Huffman and Petrillo said the greatest challenge will be sleep deprivation in addition to keeping their energy up almost 100 percent of the time. One of the greatest joys is seeing the country by bike.
“I’ve seen it by car but to see it on a bicycle is going to be amazing,” said Petrillio. “We are fortunate to have an amazing crew … It’s gonna be crazy with sleep deprivation, food, mind over matter, pushing through … that’s where the charity comes in.”
“I am someone who loves challenging myself and encouraging others. Being named the Athlete of the Year was the greatest privilege,” says Kathy in 2017