By Chuck Finder
For Sara Harper, it all started seven years ago as a necessary cross-training method for an injured cross-country runner from Strongsville High School. It blossomed into a form of competition at Kent State University and various Ohio bicycling clubs.
Now it has become not only a post-graduate pursuit, but a
regular cross-country pursuit.
This Cuyahoga Falls resident is preparing for the third time in four years for the Race Across America – the nine-day, 24-hours-a-day, one-rider-at-a-time, 3,000-mile adventure that is one-third longer than the Tour de France.
After the previous two years with a four-person team called Team Hope, Harper has joined the Pittsburgh-based Team PHenomenal Hope – whose team founder/captain is a doctor specializing in the pulmonary hypertension (PH) disease for which they’re riding next June to raise awareness and donations. Harper is training with the team, racing in various weekend events with members, and participating in the Oct. 3 Day of Giving along with other charity events throughout November’s PH awareness month and beyond.
Harper serves as an alternate rider to the four women who have never raced more than a few hundred miles at once, which also makes her the wily, Race Across America veteran of the group — at age 23.
“I am fortunate that I found cycling at a younger age in life. As I age, my passion for cycling grows,” said the 5-foot-tall Harper. “I may be small, but I have big hopes for 2014.”
She was a Strongsville High cross-country runner when injuries forced her to find a new physical outlet.
“Due to overtraining, I had developed stress fractures limiting my running for several months,” Harper recalled. Time on exercise bikes prompted her to buy a road bike for her 16th birthday. “The best decision I ever made was buying that bicycle. It has shaped me into the person I am today.
“As a severe asthmatic, I love being able to push myself to my limit.”
Coincidentally, PH -- a chronic, life-changing disease in which high blood pressure in the lungs creates a lack of blood flow to the left side of the heart and the rest of the body – is often misdiagnosed for asthma.
Harper began her bike-competition career in Cleveland-area biathlon races, the Bike MS: Pedal to the Point and the Great Ohio Bike Adventure. That morphed into cyclocross, cross-country mountain biking, BMX racing and track cycling. She competed for the University of Northern Colorado, Grunt Girl Racing in Stow, Snakebite Racing in Avon, the Ohio Fat Tires and Kent State.
This past summer, she worked with a non-profit, Fast Track Cycling, to help complete the Cleveland Velodrome.
A broken foot from the 2012 Race Across America kept her from training and competing this summer, though. She spent six months walking with a cane, and most of that time in an air cast. It wasn’t until December that she returned to her bicycle.
Nowadays, she’s back to training for the Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md., trek – this time wearing the blue-and-gold kit of Team PHenomenal Hope, captain Dr. Patty George and another team member working at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and bearing the Pitt Panthers’ colors. That is, she’s training when she isn’t working towards her Ph.D. in exercise physiology at Kent State.
“I am fortunate to study what I truly enjoy,” Harper said.
“Cycling is not what I do but who I am. It has taught me discipline and allows for me to challenge myself in ways I never knew possible.”