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Four women overcome obstacles to race across the country

In just one week a group of four women traveled 3,000 miles, demonstrating that age is just a number – and raising money for two important causes. NBC's Michelle Franzen reports.

By Elyse Perlmutter-Gumbiner
NBC News 

Seven days and 36 minutes. That’s how long it took four women to travel 3,000 miles in what’s considered by many cyclists to be one of the most difficult races in the world: the Race Across America.

The Love, Sweat and Gears team members range in age from 48 to 62. Together, they raised more than $45,000 for LiveWell Colorado obesity research, and nearly $6,500 for Utah Austim Give, while also demonstrating that age isn’t a limiting factor.

“Part of our motivation is we really want to show that people, you can start at any time,” said Julie Lyons, 54.  “[Even if] you didn't do sports as a child or you haven't been active your whole life, you can start anytime you want. You don't have to ride across America, you can ride to the grocery store, and you can ride around the block.  You can accept challenges and you can achieve them, even if you're not in your 20s.”

These women are quick to say they aren’t lifelong athletes. Lyons, a resident of Littleton, Colo., picked up biking at 41, but didn’t get serious until her kids got into high school and began leaving for college. She says she almost drowned during her first triathlon.

“A friend says, ‘Come on, you can do this,’ and I say, ‘But I don't know how to swim,’ and she says, ‘But you know how to run, come on,’” recalled Lyons. “I did one, and the minute I crossed the finish line, I thought, 'I can do this better,' and that is where the addiction lies.”

'I needed to do something to change my life'

Dina Hannah of Salt Lake City, Utah, who at 48 is the youngest rider, began cycling just eight years ago. At 40 years old, 5’6" Hannah weighed 230 pounds.

“I was just walking down the hall one day, and I felt a pop in my foot and a bone broke, just from the weight of my body,” Hannah recalled. “I decided I needed to do something to change my life.”

Cyclist Julie Lyons tells NBC's Michelle Franzen about the team's hopes for the race, how they cope with sleep deprivation and why the team gels so well.

She joined a commuter challenge at work, and began cycling to her office every day.  Soon she began taking longer and longer rides, and the weight melted off.  She was hooked. Within two years after her first ride to work, she was biking in 100-mile races.

“I always strive for more, no matter where in my life,” said Hannah. “Ever since I did my first century [100-mile race], I've bought long-distance cycling books and they talk about RAAM, and I would lie in my bed reading those chapters over and over again — it’s something I've wanted for a really long time.”

Completing their goal wasn’t easy. Teams must have someone on the road at all times.  That means at 3 p.m., when the sun is blistering, they’re peddling away. At 4 a.m., when most people are sleeping, the hardcore cyclists in Race Across America (RAAM) are catching a cool breeze at their backs.

Fourteen crew members helped Love, Sweat & Gears as they completed their trek across the country. The crew lived together in very close quarters for seven days while cooking, cleaning, fixing bikes and doing everything necessary to help the women finish the race.

The women biked in pairs, with each pair taking a four-hour shift comprised of 20-minute spurts.  Riders go as hard as they can for 20 minutes before switching out with the other rider. A support van following close behind takes the biker to the next exchange point. 

“If you look at the whole goal, you'll get overwhelmed, but if you look at a little bit of the time, 'This is all I have to do and then I get to rest for 20 minutes and then I do it again, and then I get to rest, and have fun,'” said Hannah. “It's all in the mind.”

'There will be some dark times'

While one pair is biking, the two riders on their off-shift head to the trailer.  In four hours, they must eat, shower, get massages and most importantly, sleep.  Since the riders get no more than two hours of sleep during their off shift, they face sleep deprivation.

“You can't prepare for that, so consequently do I think…I might have some dark places where I really don't want to be on this bike anymore,” said 62-year-old Amy Shonstrom, a Denver cyclist who is the oldest on the team. “But I can also tell myself that, ‘Hey, it's going to end, it's not forever, there will be some dark times, no doubt about it.’”

She knows it is probably the last time she can attempt a race of this magnitude.

“I trained hard for this, and to be in this condition that I am at my age, is a wonderful feeling -- it's great,” said Shonstrom. “I broke my kneecap a year ago, and you know there are two ways I could have handled that. I could have said ‘Oh gee’, or just keep going and I think you just have to keep moving.”

Encountering extreme temperatures and high winds

Ann Lantz, of Centennial, Colo., is the team’s second-youngest member at 49.  She rode horses her whole life, until the combination of kids and life got in the way.  At 36, a co-worker dared her try a triathlon. She’s now a Triathlon World Champion and a member of the Colorado Sportswomen Hall of Fame.

The women of Love, Sweat & Gears spent a year training for the different elements they faced along the 3000 mile route. They biked through blistering heat in Arizona and climbed the hills in the Rockies, all while dealing with severe sleep deprivation.

“They say the six inches between your two ears is the most important part of this,” said Lantz.  “I believe that's true because… everyone can train the same and have the same capabilities, but it's that little switch in your brain.”

The women braved the elements during their 3,000 mile ride.  They faced 100-plus degree temperatures in the Arizona desert, a 10,000-foot climb in Colorado and winds hard enough to blow Lantz off her bike in Kansas. 

Despite the obstacles, the women completed their goal in seven days and 36 minutes; about six hours shy of the record for women over 50.  In the history of the race, they are the eighth group of women to finish in their age category.

“I like to go fast," Lantz said, laughing. “I love that part. I love the adrenaline, I love the rush, and I love the power. Yeah, let's just get this down, and then another time in my life, I'll recreate across the country.”