Biking across the country saved Matthew Carnal from suicide.
After twice losing his job, he found himself with $1,200 to his name and even less hope.
His family has a history of suicide. He thought he was going to become another statistic.
Instead, he took a leap of faith and hopped on a bike, heading across the United States with no plan but hopes for a new perspective.
“It was food for my soul,” Carnal said. “It cleansed me. It saved my life, hands down.”
The cycling trip provided a new outlook.
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People who had seemingly nothing to give would find a way to provide him with food or shelter. He saw the country, learning about how different cultures within the same country live. It’s set him off on a string of adventures, and the latest will be the most daunting.
Carnal is a graduate student at CSU and the only American man who has been invited to compete in the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme bike race this summer. It’s a nearly 6,000-mile journey from Moscow, east across Russia to the Sea of Japan, skirting the borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China, ending just north of North Korea.
The 24-day adventure is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and an expensive one at that. Carnal needs to pay a $20,000 entry fee, with $10,000 due by Jan. 31.
There’s an estimated $3,000 in flights for him and a support person, plus the costs of getting his two bicycles to Russia. There’s also clothing needed for a climate that will range from 35 degrees to 100, with rain, wind and who knows what else.
But the 37-year-old Carnal has become accustomed to scrapping and hopes his fight can help inspire.
He grew up in Kansas, one of three siblings raised by a single mom working three jobs, and earned a scholarship to play baseball at Newman University in Wichita.
He found a job as a chemist for Koch Industries in 1999. He worked his way up and by 2005 was annually earning more than $50,000, plus his company was funding him as an extreme athlete and he grew an interest in competing in Race Across America and running Ironmans.
Then the economy crashed and he was laid off in 2008. He bounced around, eventually finding a job in Florida. That opportunity disappeared less than a month later.
“I just got in a black hole. It was downhill at that point,” Carnal said.
Nearly broke, Carnal moved back to the Midwest to search for a job. But with two degrees he found himself deemed “overqualified” for jobs at supermarkets or Walmart. As the darkness surrounded him, he knew he had to escape.
That’s when the trek across the country came to mind. He asked a friend for a trailer to attach to his bike and he was ready to go.
“’I think I’m going to leave tomorrow and ride across the country.’ She goes, ‘Really? No planning, no nothing?’ I go, ‘Yep,’” Carnal said. “I loved riding my bike. I was like I’m either going to be here depressed, no job and can’t find a job. Or I’m going to ride across the country with the $600 I have and see how far I can get and do something fun.”
He successfully completed the trip in 2010 in a 101-day, 7,500-mile journey, then did another cross-country trek in 2014. Biking extreme distances has become his therapy. Being in one place gets Carnal depressed, the road is where he feeds his mind.
He’s won Strava monthly mile competitions, going 3,300 miles in 25 days to win the first.
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He doesn’t have competitive endurance races on his resume, but his cross-country adventures were enough to pique the interest of the Trans-Siberian race directors.
Carnal is close to finishing a masters in exercise science, his fourth degree. He wants to get his Ph. D and become a college professor.
In the meantime, he hopes his journey will provide inspiration and, with a little help from strangers, he’ll be able to compete in the race of a lifetime.
“When I got into this race I was like, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Carnal said. “What I do now on the bike can motivate kids to continue to dream, because that’s all I had as a kid.”
Follow sports reporter Kevin Lytle at twitter.com/Kevin_Lytle and at facebook.com/KevinSLytle.
Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme
Details: 9,224 kilometers (5,732 miles), 14 stages, 24 days. … Race crosses seven time zones, skirting the borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. … Carnal is one of two Americans and the only man from the U.S. selected for the race. … Race runs July 18-Aug. 11.
Costs: Entry fee is $20,000, with $10,000 due by Jan. 31. Fee includes support car, hotels, food. Extra costs include roughly $3,000 each for flight for Carnal and a support person. Shipping bikes to Russia costs an estimated $1,300, plus costs for gear, backup bike parts, nutrition.
How to help: Email Carnal at Matthew.Carnal@colostate.edu or visit his Go Fund Me page at: gofundme.com/chosen-to-race-across-siberia-2017