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Champion Ultramarathon Cyclist Steers Toward Great Wall of China

April 17, 1988|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

When Michael Shermer decided almost 10 years ago to "push the frontiers of endurance," it was only to see how far and how fast he could go on a bicycle.

An unexpected result is that the skills he developed as a champion cyclist may take him next year to the Great Wall of China, where he hopes to be one of three endurance racers who will traverse as much of it as possible.

And when the Claremont Graduate School student returns from traveling the Great Wall from the Gobi desert to the Yellow Sea, he hopes to apply the same principles to academics that he learned as an athlete. If he succeeds, he believes he could become an outstanding scholar.

"The common ingredient with successful people I've studied is that they were monomaniacal," Shermer said. "They had a single goal and they pursued it relentlessly--whether they were athletes or scholars. And if you love what you're doing, it's not like it's work. It's what you'd rather do than anything. I was that way as an athlete and I want to be that way as a scholar."

Shermer, who has set several world records as an ultramarathon bicyclist, teaches psychology at Glendale Community College. He has also written four books and many articles on cycling, is a monthly columnist for a cycling magazine and is a lecturer who focuses on mental and physical fitness.

At 33, the La Canada Flintridge man said he is beginning to phase out physical challenges in favor of academia.

Cycling the Great Wall fits neatly into his plans.

"It's an opportunity of a lifetime," Shermer said of the excursion that is due to start next April and will be recorded in a documentary film produced by Scott Billups of Los Angeles.

"The last great adventure," is how Billups described it.

Billups, who said he has produced documentaries and commercials, has enlisted Shermer, John Howard of Encinitas and Casey Patterson of Topanga to star in the film.

"Wherever they go, they are either going to ride, push or carry their bikes every inch of the way," Billups said.

Early Defense Effort

The Great Wall is actually many clusters of walls that were built and connected about 400 to 200 years before the birth of Christ as a defense against invading forces. It was repaired and extended during the Ming Dynasty, which began in 1368. Billups said that although some parts are not connected, an estimated 2,200 miles still stand, traversing several mountain peaks and going into deep canyons. The part most people see is a restored section near Beijing, he said.

"You have no concept of how difficult" this trip will be, he said.

Billups, a cycling enthusiast who said he rides at least 5,000 miles a year, is the producer of a newly released video, "Wheels in Motion," which he described as an educational film that "covers every aspect of cycling." He recently finished a documentary on Canada for the Canadian Ministry of Tourism, and has done several tourism and educational documentaries.

He said it will cost about $1 million to film in China, but would not identify the companies from which he hopes to obtain funding.

Billups said he has long been interested in China and has spent years on this project because there is no known record of anyone ever traveling the Great Wall from one end to the other.

Crew Mostly Chinese

"In China . . . traveling farther than is needed is considered a blatant disregard for tradition," he said.

The crew will be almost entirely Chinese, Billups said, except for himself, a couple of assistants and the three cyclists whose bikes will be equipped with odometers to measure the main wall's length.

The cyclists will be paid from whatever proceeds the documentary earns, as well as what they can make from speaking engagements, Billups said.

He chose Shermer, Howard and Patterson "because they are critically motivated people--able to fix on a goal and dedicate themselves to it. Only tiptop athletes can do that, and the rarest are the long-distance ones."

Patterson won the women's division of last year's Race Across America, a 3,000-mile ultramarathon that Shermer helped found in 1982. Howard holds the world's bicycle speed record of 152 m.p.h., is a seven-time national cycling champion, holds international biathlon and triathlon titles and has been on three Olympic cycling teams.

Several World Records

Shermer, who began as a competitive cyclist in 1979, established world records three different times in the Seattle-to-San Diego race. He set a world record in a 1983 Miami to Maine race. He competed in the Race Across America three times, with his best finish a third place in 1985.

On the coast-to-coast race, Shermer said he slept 90 minutes every 24 hours during the 10 days it took to cross the country. He once went 83 hours without sleep "and you get pretty giddy," he said.

Always a good athlete and student, Shermer said he got a master's degree in psychology from Cal State Fullerton, but the only job he could get then was writing for a bicycling magazine.

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