Racing Across America To Change Perceptions Of Older Women

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Trish Karter and her team set out to change perceptions of older women. (Courtesy Beth Wald)
Trish Karter and her team set out to change perceptions of older women. (Courtesy Beth Wald)

What drives competitive amateur athletes? In Trish Karter’s case, let’s think multiple choice:

a) Curiosity about how well she can do if she works harder. b) Determination to recover from a serious injury. c) Desire to prove women of a certain age shouldn’t be written off as athletes.

And the answer is d) All of the above, and also e) Some other stuff.

Trish Karter’s first experiences as an athlete didn’t discourage her. Which is sort of amazing.

Run Like The Plague

"I was a Title IX baby in Connecticut," Karter says. "I joined the boys' track team, and the coach hated the whole idea. The first day he tried to shake us all."

But Trish Karter didn’t get shaken.

"Then I became a half-miler because that was the shortest race you could put more than three competitors in without wasting a lane on a girl," Karter says. "And I'd get out there, and, you know, I'd be faster than some kid. So I'd pass him and, invariably, those guys would drop out of the race with shin splints and side aches and all manner of affliction. I was like the plague every time I passed somebody."

Karter passed enough runners to qualify for the state track meet and ...

"Two days before the meet I asked my coach what my lane was gonna be, and he said, 'Oh, gosh. Forgot to send in your card.' That was it. I never got to race against girls. I didn't go to the state meets. I always felt like I could've been someone. Could've been a contender."

Fast-forward to adulthood. Having accepted that running track was out, Trish Karter founded and ran the Dancing Deer Baking Co., famous for its cookies. And absent a discouraging coach, she started competing in marathons as well. And when that started to beat up her knees, she began riding a bike seriously enough to impress other bike riders.

"Someone said, 'Trish, you oughta race. You’re fast.' And so I did," Karter says. "I jumped in with no preparation and really no clue what I was doing."

A Bicyclist's Nightmare

Unfortunately, one day back in 2010, she encountered a motorist who had the same problem. That combination made for a bicyclist’s nightmare.

"I was coming into an intersection," Karter says. "I knew the light was about to turn green. As it did, I was going fast, and, in retrospect, possibly too fast. A car broke the red arrow on the other side and turned left in front of me.

"So I just had to slam on the brakes, and the bike went flying. I went flying, landed on my head, and everything on my left side was either broken or dislocated or scraped off or rearranged or cracked."

"Did you know right away that you were seriously injured?" I ask.

"I suspected," Karter says.

Her suspicions were correct. And the most serious injury was to her brain. For months she slept all day. Tests found her processing speed was slow and her executive functioning was compromised.

"It wasn’t clear whether I would get back to a professional career," she says.

Karter would eventually lose her company — though not because of the injury. Because in this particular case, pessimism lost out to patience and therapy.

"I did, over time, get my brain back," Karter says. "I think it’s better than ever, slightly rearranged."

Getting Back On The Bike

Maybe Karter should have been leery of climbing back on a bicycle. And she was, for a little while. And then she wasn’t.

Trish Karter (Courtesy Beth Wald)
Trish Karter (Courtesy Beth Wald)

"I wanted to get fit and strong again," Karter says. "I liked being that way. So it came to me, this idea, that I could ride up Mount Washington, that that would be an adequate goal and help me make this recovery."

Trish Karter’s rearranged brain figured out that falling off a bike headed slowly uphill wouldn’t be a big deal. Even if that hill was a mountain, climbing it wouldn’t be as dangerous as speeding through a busy intersection, and a tumble wouldn’t hurt much.

"It's more of a tilt-over than it is an accident," she says.

So she did, in fact, take on the 2011 Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb, described as one of the two toughest hill climbs in the world.

"I came across the summit finish line, and I don’t know — other than having my two children — that there was ever a more glorious, rewarding, emotional moment," Karter says. "I knew that this was all a part of my asserting to myself that I was OK, that I could do stuff, I wasn’t a failure. It was some kind of a point of inflection in my life."

So there she was, at the top of Mount Washington, and for anyone else, it might have been all downhill from there. But not for Trish Karter.

The Race Across America

She heard about a competition called the Race Across America. RAAM, for short. But, it isn’t short. Because it goes from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland.

Karter had friends who had completed the race, and one day she went to check on their times. The results were categorized by age group.

"And as I was scrolling through, I became aware of seeing no women's names after I passed the 50s," Karter says. "And I went back and I looked again. And there were no — at the time, I thought there were no women that had ever competed successfully in RAAM."

That turned out to be a misreading. Two women did complete the 2011 RAAM, and Karter did eventually discover her mistake.

"But it was too late because I had already been gripped with this idea that that was not acceptable," she says. "Somebody had to change that fact. That was it. I just decided I had to do it — that's not entirely true. I thought about it for a little while. I tried to talk myself out of it."

"But you were unsuccessful," I offer.

"I was unsuccessful. I just couldn’t let it go."

So Trish Karter signed up for the 2017 edition of RAAM, which would begin in June. She put together a four-person team of riders and a support group of a dozen or so others. Karter, by that time 60, decided that the riders and some of the support team should all be about the same age she was. Before she set out, she was humble about that goal of being the first team of women over 60 to finish the RAAM.

"It’s not much," Karter says. "But it’s a thing that can be done. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, 'Do the thing and you will have the power.' Something like that. Just push the edge a little bit in a positive direction. Obviously, if a few people look up and say, 'Oh, my god, I can’t believe a woman could ride a bicycle across the country at that speed,' that'll be good, too."

"And we had this little microcosm within our crew, our 19 people. We had a microcosm of what we were trying to do in the larger world around us."

Trish Karter

Agreed. No doubt about it. But in order for that to happen, Trish Karter and her team would have to ride bicycles from one end of the country to the other in seven days. This would require a support team able to ... but, hey. You’re curious about how the ride worked out, right? I was, too. So a few weeks after this summer’s race, I re-connected with Karter:

"Trish Karter? This is Bill Littlefield. How are you?"

"Hey, Bill. I’m well."

"How you doing?" I ask.

"Great, great," she replies.

"I'm OK. I expected you to answer 'tired.'"

"Ahh, maybe still somewhat in recovery."

About a third of the entries didn’t finish the race. Trish Karter and her team did.

"Remarkably, yes," Karter says. "Exhausted. Completely spent. But great and grateful that I was there. Alive. Safe. That I’d made it. And it could have been ugly. And it sometimes is."

Trish Karter's team rode 3,000 miles across the country. (Courtesy Beth Wald)
Trish Karter's team rode 3,000 miles across the country. (Courtesy Beth Wald)

And sometimes, it isn’t.

"The Milky Way is so big, and the sky is so magnificent out West, and we didn’t have a full moon, but we had a decent amount of starlight," Karter remembers.

They rode through desert heat and tropical storms. They rode against a 30-mile-an-hour wind blowing across Kansas. And as the race wore on, sleep became more essential, and hygiene more optional.

"The first night, before I stretched out, I brushed my teeth and washed my face and flossed my teeth. Second night, it wasn’t worth the floss part. I knew I could get through without that. It wasn’t worth the lost sleep," Karter says with a laugh. "So you can just take it from there. Everybody carved it down to the bare essentials."

A Microcosm Of A Cause

The challenges for the riders — four women, all at or near eligibility for that senior discount at the movies — are obvious. Those facing the members of the support team may be less dramatic, but Trish Karter wanted to talk about them.

"Two of the drivers were women in their late 60s and two were guys," she says. "And I talked to a number of people on the crew who later admitted that when they saw these two lovely women — just perfectly wonderful people, charming — show up, somewhere they had a reaction in their brains which was, 'Uh, oh. This is not gonna work too well.' And they didn’t have that reaction about the guys."

And, uh, they shouldn’t have had that reaction about the women, who had to drive for 10 to 14 hours at a stretch, stay precisely where they belonged in front of and behind the riders and keep track of what those athletes needed, and wanted, and when.

"As it turned out, these very amazing women were rock stars," Karter says. "And they even didn’t drink much, so that they wouldn’t have to stop too often. They ended up being the ultimate authority on really what was happening all the time. And, by the end of the race, we have a funny picture of some of the younger folk on the team literally bowing down before them. They completely blew away their expectations. And we had this little microcosm within our crew, our 19 people. We had a microcosm of what we were trying to do in the larger world around us."

No Time To Waste

It’s a fine image — that microcosm is — for a big goal: teaching people not to stereotype or underestimate folks based on gender or age. And speaking of goals, Karter and her team raised tens of thousands of dollars for gender-specific medical research. But the more Trish Karter and I talked, the clearer it became that her personal goals were linked with that microcosm. She had recovered from an accident that damaged her brain, and from various other losses less dramatic. Now maybe she could celebrate.

"Last time we spoke, also you mentioned that you’ve always felt like you could have been a contender," I say. "Now that you’ve raced across the country, I don’t know if you still feel like a contender, or if you feel like a champ?"

"I don’t know," Karter says. "Look, that’s just me. I’m always gonna feel like there’s the next category that I should be stepping up to. I did something. I did. It was great. It was big and a very solid performance. I feel like the other people are the real elite athletes, and I’m must kind of hanging out in the neighborhood."

Just "hanging out in the neighborhood." Well, not really. The day after the Race Across America, Trish Karter went to work at the baking company in New Haven where she’s the CEO. Bread this time, rather than cookies, she says. And I should drop in some day. But that’s not all she says when she looks ahead.

"I don’t know the big, big next," she says. "I had thought I would be really wasted and not interested in racing this summer. I — about a week ago — I jumped on my bike on a lark and went over to East Rock, which is about a 400-foot climb and a little over a mile. And I thought, well, let me see how fast I can go and I zipped up it."

You probably don’t have to be told Karter timed herself on that ride up East Rock, or that she turned in a personal best.

But just in case you do, she did.

This segment aired on August 12, 2017.


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Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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