Cyclist overcomes adversity to finish Race Across America

Maria Parker and her son Will, 19, are greeted by her son Steven Parker, left, and nephew Charlie Mulligan, right, as the stop at Mt. Airy Bicycles, the Mount Airy Time Station, in the Race Across America Sunday.
Maria Parker and her son Will, 19, are greeted by her son Steven Parker, left, and nephew Charlie Mulligan, right, as the stop at Mt. Airy Bicycles, the Mount Airy Time Station, in the Race Across America Sunday. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

ANNAPOLIS - It takes determination and grit to complete a 3,000-mile bike race that begins in Oceanside, Calif., and ends in Annapolis.

When Maria Parker's follow van was rear-ended by a car going 65 miles per hour, destroying her backup bikes, it didn't stop her from completing the race - it inspired her.

Sunday, after cycling for 11 days, 20 hours and 54 minutes, Parker crossed the finish line in Annapolis.

Race Across America, powered by Trane, is a continual marathon race, Rick Boethling, RAAM's executive director, said.

While the first men's soloist, Austrian bicyclist Cristoph Strasser, broke the record for the fastest time at seven days, 22 hours and 11 minutes, Parker was the first woman soloist to cross the finish line Sunday.

She decided to participate in RAAM after her older sister, Jenny Mulligan, was diagnosed terminally ill with brain cancer in October. As a long-distance cyclist, Parker said she wanted to raise money for brain cancer research.

"I'm just a housewife in Lumberton, N.C., nobody knows who I am. If I say I want to raise a million dollars for brain cancer research, people aren't that interested," she said.

Instead she signed up for RAAM, and began the journey. Just two days into the race, Parker's follow van was rear-ended in Tuba City, Ariz., which totaled the car and almost ended the race for her.

The part of the highway was risky, and it was mandated that the van be directly behind Parker, said husband Tim Parker. Tim said the decision probably saved Maria's life. Tim and Maria's son was in the back of the van preparing food for Maria as it was hit. If he had been on the other side of the van at the moment, he would have been crushed, Tim said.

Maria said when the vehicles collided, she just kept pedaling, fearing the vehicles would hit her.

"When Maria saw that everybody was going to survive, she still wanted to go on and we said no," Tim said.

The crew, which was mixed with some of Maria's family, decided Maria should finish the race unofficially, just to raise funds for brain cancer research. The crew went to the impound lot and salvaged what bike parts they could of the car, and planned to start again at another area beyond the highway where the crash occurred.

"That's when she looked at me and she said 'I want to start where I stopped.' She just had this determination to finish the course, the whole course, even unofficially," Tim said. "To start the race back on the busy highway where her son was almost killed was very traumatic. It just emphasized her determination to continue."

Race organizers re-entered her into the race, and after losing a whole day, she got back on the bike. Parker picked up speed as she went along, passing the other participating women soloists. While five women soloists signed up, three were unable to finish.

Boethling said the gender disparity is pretty typical for ultra marathon events, but he thinks it's changing. For years it was down to two or three women, but in the last few years, typically five or six women sign up for the race.

Maria had a reason for why women don't sign up for the 3,000-mile race across the country.

"I think we're too smart for it," she said. "It doesn't make any sense at all to do it unless you have a good reason. And I do have a good reason."

What makes the race different from a staged race such as the Tour de France is that in a staged race, cyclists are able to stop and rest at the end of the night. For RAAM, cyclists choose how long they sleep.

Maria said she planned to get three hours of sleep a night.

"I don't feel like I ever got three hours, but they tell me I did," she joked.

Sunday she cycled through Hanover, Pa., Mount Airy and Odenton before landing at City Dock in Annapolis. Larry Black, the owner of Mount Airy Bicycles, which serves as the time station, said Maria was in Mount Airy for practically seconds.

"She actually gained momentum as she went along," Black said.

Black said he had the opportunity to meet her briefly, and was convinced by her crew to buy a recumbent Cruzbike, the kind she used in the race. Purchasing the bike is another way to donate to her cause, he said.

This is the seventh year for Black sponsoring a time station. During the event, Black keeps the store open 24 hours until the race is over. He said watching the cyclists pass through Mount Airy is inspiring to him.

The choice to keep going was an easy one for Maria. Her terminally ill sister's son urged her to keep going.

"If we gave up because somebody hit our car and destroyed our bikes, what kind of a message are we sending to the researchers, to the victims, to the other people who we've asked for money?" she said.

For everyone, the trip was nerve wracking. Maria's mother, Peggy Paparella, said she's aged in the last 11 days. She and her husband Vince constantly checked social media outlets to see how Maria was doing.

"She was looking better this morning. She had a smile on her face," Peggy said.

When she crossed the finish line, her daughter placed a crown of flowers atop Maria's head. Maria was smiling from ear to ear.