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Ultra-endurance athlete Mathew Arnold ultra-nerds out for Race Across America

Denver-based cyclist and University of Colorado grad student Mathew Arnold may be the only competitor working on his thesis in the middle of the 30th annual transcontinental Race Across America (RAAM) bicycle race from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland, next week: Arnold and his SIMPLE Mobile Team partner David Preston are going all out in their attempt to break the current course record of six days, eleven hours in the race's two-person relay division, but Arnold says he can't help but nerd out on the opportunity to collect new data for his research in exercise physiology and the limits of human endurance while he's at it. We caught up with him a few days before the race's June 18 start date to ask him about human evolution, the limits of human endurance, and being his own guinea pig. Westword: The Race Across America begins on Saturday. What are the last stages of preparation this week?

Mathew Arnold: Trying to get the rest of my life in order before I travel across the country! This year I'm doing kind of a crazy thing: I'm taking a class that is a semester-long course that will be covered in four weeks, and I'm missing a week of this class -- roughly 20-25 percent of the material covered by this class -- to go racing across the country. So I'm trying to prepare to be successful in RAAM and also be successful in this class, which, it turns out, is taking some work.

WW: How did you get involved in doing this race?

MA: I fell into it after I met my race partner Dave Preston last year on the Tour Divide, which is a 2,745 mile mountain bike race from Banff, Canada down to the border of Mexico, crossing the Continental Divide 30 times with something like 200,000 feet of elevation gain over the course of the race. The friends you make under those kinds of conditions are hard to say no to! He really wanted to do RAAM and had a sponsorship all set up, and asked if I wanted to join him. I said yes without thinking it over, and it still seems like a good decision... Ask me again in two weeks to see if I still feel that way!

WW: I understand you'll be doing some serious academic research while you're racing. Just going out and racing across the country wasn't challenging enough for you?

MA: When it's easy to gather data, there's lots of data to be had. That's kind of the nature of research: When it's easy to get the numbers then lots of people can do it. But trying to collect data on something like endurance racing in an event like RAAM is a bit more challenging, and that's the kind of data I'm after. So, what we're going to do is continuously -- over the course of the seven days we're racing -- have heart monitors on us at all times, not only while we're riding but also while we're recovering. We'll also have wattage monitors in the hubs of our rear wheels to tell us how much power the hub is receiving, you know, how much we're putting into the system. And we'll be collecting data on our internal body temperature, the external temperature in the environments we'll be racing through, and our calories: How much we're putting in and how much we're burning. We'll be able to do some really interesting things once we have that data. For example, based on heart rate, wattage, and calories, we can make certain assumptions that the type of calories we're putting in are going to be equivalent to the calories we're burning, and we'll then be able to make certain inferences about economy. I have some ideas about how the body changes over the course of an ultra-distance event like RAAM and how our body uses calories, what we call "nutrient utilization -- how we use glycogens versus fats versus proteins as the race goes on.

WW: What's all this research building towards?

MA: There are some big questions I'm interested in. For one thing, there is a theory in exercise physiology called the "central governor theory," which asks, basically, how does our brain work, independent of our motivation, to regulate the body when it's fatigued, and when does it say, "Enough is enough" and force the body to quit in order to protect itself? Another related question in my mind is this idea of the "running man theory" of evolution: One of the cool en vogue ideas about human evolution is that our ability to go these crazy ultra distances may have been one of the key survival differences between homo sapiens and homo neanderthals. At some point in our prehistory we were living amongst each other, and as we went through an ice age and had to travel further distances to get to nutrients, our ability to go these ultra distances may have been the key feature we had. In other words, we may all be descended from ultra-distance runners and that may explain why so many of us have this urge to compete in these events. Ultra-endurance events are the fastest growing sports in the world right now, hands down. But I digress... I have some big theories I'm bouncing around, but I'm focusing on one key piece: What happens to the body in these crazy conditions?

WW: According to your press release you're also making a pretty serious attempt to finish this race in record time. Where do the research you're doing and your seriousness about posing a real threat as competitors in the race converge?

MA: How do those things not intersect at some point? We're putting everything we know to the test in this event. Dave came into the exercise physiology lab here a few days ago and we did some testing to look at out performance levels, and based on some of the theories of exercise physiology and some of our own math we have some target numbers we really want to stay within. How to keep those numbers at those target levels has been a big driver in our training and preparation. For my research and the data I'm trying to collect I want to really go all out. But the thing that I'm not so excited about -- ha ha -- with regards to this whole idea of trying to go after the record is that when you come to a race like RAAM there are so many factors, so many variables. In terms of the physiology and training, Dave and I just might have the what it takes to do this, but there's really a lot of luck involved as well: There's no such thing as a perfect race, and 3,000 miles is a long race! There's a good chance we're going to crash. There's a possibility, with all the crazy weather we've been having, that we could have headwinds for four days straight or even for the entire time. It makes for a snappy press release to say we're going after the record, but I've been really reluctant to talk about it too much and put all the focus there: There are a lot of things that would have to come together in order for that to become a possibility. Let's just say we're going to give it our all.

WW: What do you anticipate being the biggest challenges for you personally?

MA: It's the same thing that challenges that every RAAM participant faces, I'm sure: The sleep deprivation, and the challenge of pushing through that. I think we have the physical capability to go the distance, no problem. It's the sleep deprivation that worries me.

WW: You mentioned motivation earlier. What's your own motivation for doing these kinds of events, and racing in this one in particular?

MA: I knew you were going to ask that, and I don't have a good answer for you: It's kind of a lifestyle thing for me: It's just kind of a part of me. Somebody asked me that -- "what's your motivation?" -- on Day 17 of the Tour Divide race. I averaged 131 miles a day on a mountain bike in that race! So what's my motivation? I'll tell you this: I get an amazing feeling from competing in these events, and it comes in waves. At the beginning of every day you feel like you don't want to get back on the bike, your body hurts, it's really sore... but then your mind starts to calm down and over the course of the day you develop this amazing connection to the world, and to your bike, and to yourself. It's that whole idea of "digging deeper" to learn more about yourself and what you're capable of. That's just what I do.

WW: So what's your thesis? What are you capable of? What are humans capable of?

MA: It's really broad at this point and I'm hoping to narrow it down a bit once I have this new data, but I'm really interested in what happens to the body, both biomechanically and biochemically, through ultra-endurance stimulation and exercise. The bible for most ultrarunners is The Lore of Running by Timothy Noakes -- he's really famous in exercise physiology for studying this -- and I would like to make a similar contribution to the field, bringing together a lot of ideas and a lot of data to stimulate some new thinking about the human body and how it responds under extreme pressures. Is there some cap to the human performance machine? Is there some point where you exercise too much? Can you be too fit and start to do damage to your body? I'm driven by those kinds of questions. If the running man theory of evolution is correct, then it wasn't too long ago in the grand scheme of things that our ancestors were running across the entire continent of Africa once a year, at least, on this huge migration, maybe as much as 2,000 miles in a single month to survive. And if this was the selective pressure under which we evolved, than maybe we all still have that ability within us, maybe there's a piece of us that longs for this feeling that you get from going these ultra distances? Have I sold you?

WW: Well, I'm interested in all kinds of action sports and endurance sports, and the extremes of human performance, but I don't know that I'll be following you across the country in the RAAM any time soon.

MA: I think there is something positive that people get from this, something universal about pushing the limits of human endurance and the feeling you get from it, and it may have its roots in the survival of the species.

WW: The neanderthals didn't have the Trek Bicycle Store supporting them.

MA: Dave and I have to be the luckiest people alive. The Trek Bicycle Store in Boulder has been so supportive, so awesome. To get your bikes up and running and keep them going with the kind of miles Dave and I put on them... it takes a lot. And SIMPLE Mobile has been amazing, too. I went out there on a training ride we had from Phoenix, AZ to Irvine, CA and I couldn't believe how excited everybody was about what we're doing. I mean, we have a support crew of eleven people for the RAAM! Everything on our wish list that we wanted in order to be successful in this race and to collect our data, we have it all thanks to these sponsors. A lot of people have been involved in helping us keep this dream alive and making this all possible. The rest is going to be on us.

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WW: Is there anything you want to see emphasized in a story about the journey you're about to set out on?

MA: If I want to emphasize anything it's that Dave and I are pretty normal dudes. Dave has a 9 to 5 job; I'm a student. It's not like we were born as some genetic freaks that allowed us to do this, and we're not full-time professional athletes. My point is that anyone could do this if you just have the desire to hang in there, and that's part of what I hope to show through my research. Dave and I are people who have commitments, and jobs, and school, and families. It's not easy, but we make it work. The ability to go the distance, so to speak, is inside all of us.

To follow the SIMPLE Mobile Team's Race Across America adventures, visit MySIMPLEMobile.com/RAAM.

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