Endurance athlete seeks new challenge in spiritual calling

Sarah Shulman - Contributed photo
Sarah Shulman
— image credit: Contributed photo

Half-measures were never Sarah Shulman’s style.

Around midnight on July 11, the former Islander was sitting on a roadside in Valdez, Alaska, and still facing another 200 miles of the grueling Fireweed 400 bicycle endurance race.

Exhausted and aching with pain, Shulman took a few minutes to consider if what she was doing was worth it.

“I was actually crying as I arrived,” she said.

The 28-year-old is no stranger to pushing her body to the limit, finishing the 2004 Hawaii Ironman at the top of her women’s age bracket. But the pause in Valdez gave Shulman the spiritual epiphany she was looking for.

“I love biking,” Shulman said. “So I thought to myself, if I can do this, I can be a rabbi.”

Now resting comfortably at her parent’s home on Mercer Island and riding her bicycle down the Island’s thoroughfares at a more leisurely pace, she says the return to her roots and the Alaskan endurance race are part of a personal odyssey to prepare her for the demands of rabbinical school.

Wrapping up her work of several years as a middle school teacher in San Francisco, the erstwhile endurance athlete is “re-energizing and reconnecting” with her childhood home, family and friends here before she heads to the American Jewish University for training in how to administer the Jewish faith. She said teaching middle school students helped her realize her calling to serve others in times of need, while her penchant for endurance races prompted her to explore the intersection between the spiritual and physical existence.

“I know my life has always been a weave, a dance between service work, athletics and writing,” Shulman said.

Her class at the conservative denomination rabbinical school — located in the Los Angeles, Calif., suburb of Bel-Air — is made up 15 students, five of whom are women.

Shulman’s passion for pushing herself to her physical limits has been a die-hard habit that she credits her parents with instilling in her early on, and she excelled as a MIHS swim team standout and soccer player. After running triathlons in California, racing the Ironman and even named an “All-American triathlete” by Inside Triathlon magazine, she was set to return to the 2005 Ironman race when she cracked her tibia bone. She later discovered that the break was the result of a rare form of osteoporosis, which prevents her bones from absorbing enough calcium and affects younger, physically active women.

“When my bones kept breaking, I went to the doctor and found out I have the bones of an 80-year-old woman,” she said. “So I changed up [my competitive racing career] to having fun.”

Cycling, with less stress placed on her bones, was the perfect segue to channel her taste for a challenge. The Fireweed 400, with a 400-mile circuit and a cumulative 28,000-foot range in elevation, is one of an ever-growing number of “ultra-cycling” competitions and is the culmination of months of training.

Shulman was one of about 500 entrants in this year’s race, but less than two dozen racers completed the 400-mile course.

Finishing with a time of 26 hours, 50 minutes and 19 seconds, Shulman said she was within striking distance of the lead when she fell behind due to a couple of flat tires in the early morning darkness. For most of the ride back, the road was mostly illuminated by her support team of friends, Hannah Griego and Kevin Sullivan, riding behind her in a car.

“I had a lot of people telling me not to do it and that I’d fall asleep while riding and break my collar bone,” she said. “I’m the kind of person who loves challenges.”

She finished seventh overall.

The finish time qualified her for the greatest ultra-cycling competition of all: The 3,021-mile Race Across America (RAAM) challenge, something that Shulman hints might be a possibility in the future, should rabbinical school not prove challenging enough.

Griego and Sullivan encouraged her and kept her supplied with a 15,000-calorie diet of almond-butter and honey sandwiches and pizza during the race. At the rest-break in Valdez, Shulman said they looked worried that she might not resume the race. But 15 minutes later, she was back on her ruby-colored Specialized carbon-fiber bicycle, pedaling her way back to Sheep Mountain Lodge and the finish line.

“This endurance stuff seems to be my kind of thing,” she observed.

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