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Southwest Spotlight: Persistent type: World-class triathlete, cyclist from Mott publishes book

Press Photo by April Baumgarten Athlete and author Melanie Carvell, Mott, is promoting her book, “Running with Antelope.”

She was on a bike, flying down a road in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, her son cycling near her, when two horses in a field spotted them and joined in, galloping alongside the road.

Four beings racing together at matching speed.

“They were flying and we were flying,” related Melanie Carvell, 53, a cyclist who has qualified for past Olympic trials. She is also a six-time all-American triathlete who represented the U.S. on eight world championship teams, was a bronze medalist at a past world championship in Germany, and is now author of a memoir.

“It was almost mystical, almost spiritual,” Carvell said about the horse incident.

Another time, a herd of antelope didn’t flee from her bike but seemed curious and playfully came with her — thus her book’s name, “Running with the Antelope: Life, Fitness and Grit on the Northern Plains.”

The book is meant to be several things: a love song to North Dakota and the importance of pursuing an active, healthy lifestyle of outside experiences in this beautiful state, said Carvell, who grew up in Mott and is a physical therapist and director of Sanford Women’s Health Center in Bismarck.

Carvell said the overriding message is about “reaching your full potential and not giving up.”

‘Training for life’

There was no indication for years that she was championship-athlete material, she said.

Carvell was about 13 years old when, during a cheerleading audition, she went from a cartwheel into the splits, and a crack could be heard throughout the gym when she suffered a hamstring avulsion. The tendon not only tore off the bone but took part of the bone with it. It required hospitalization and significant physical therapy.

Carvell said she knew then, experiencing the wonderful treatment and atmosphere, that she wanted to be a physical therapist.

She said she focused on academics, knowing she needed a 4.0 grade-point average to get into University of North Dakota’s competitive physical therapy program. But she also liked being busy and wanted to experience a little of everything. So in addition to playing piano and editing the school newspaper, she tried other activities in high school, including basketball and track.

She said she has never thought of herself as gifted in anything and that nothing ever came easy to her.

She just worked hard.

“I just never knew when to quit,” she said and laughed.

In high school, Carvell said she never qualified for a state track meet.

In college, at University of North Dakota, she was a dead-last cross country runner. She said it was kind words from the team’s fastest runner that kept her going.

“Never underestimate what a kind word of encouragement can mean to someone and what it may lead to,” she said.

She didn’t quit. By her senior year, she had improved to being a middle-of-the-pack runner.

She then decided to try competing in triathlons and that’s where she had discovered a strength — cycling. After college graduation, she continued to train — in addition to getting married, becoming a mother and being a physical therapist in Bismarck, helping, among others, a seriously injured young farmer learn to walk again.

And she started moving up the triathlon ranks.

“It was slow progress,” she said.

At age 28, she made it to the triathlon national championships and placed 10th. Ultimately, she would be an all-American, represent the U.S. in world championships and travel the world.

Carvell recalled that during a Florida race that would determine if she would qualify for the 1998 world championships in Germany, it was 100 degrees in the shade and about 100 percent humidity. She still had 1.5 miles of running when she came upon a runner with a prosthetic leg. He and others with challenges had started the race two hours earlier than Carvell and the other runners. So she realized he had been out in the heat much longer than she had — 4½ hours to her 2½. She put a hand on his shoulder and told him he looked beautiful. He told her the same thing. She then put it in another gear, telling herself that if he can persevere through the heat, so could she — and she qualified.

Another year, she qualified for the Olympic trials as a cyclist and trained with the U.S. team, but didn’t pursue that intense-training path because of her commitment to family and career.

Carvell’s pre-race ritual is a cup of black coffee and a peanut butter Clif bar, as well as saying a prayer or two and mantras along the way. In her mid-30s, Carvell knew she was peaking. She had her best finishing times, was sponsored by Reebok and had accumulated tons of gear from the company.

But that doesn’t mean everything went smoothly.

There was the time she grabbed some of her Reebok shoes for a Bismarck race and and it wasn’t until she was at the race site that Carvell noticed she had brought two right shoes. The husband of a fellow athlete was able to run to Carvell’s house, go in her closet and get a left shoe in time for the race’s start.

Several years ago, a back problem required surgery and fusion, and Carvell would spend about six years trying to come back — and did. In 2013, she qualified for the 2014 World Championship USA Triathlon team. But she said she had to give up her spot because her back problem had returned.

“I’m training for life, now,” said Carvell, who’s still participating in cycling and swimming segments of triathlons, just not the running.

Putting into words

Among other things, she wants to be a fit and healthy grandma for her two grandchildren. She advises people, particularly parents, that time spent exercising isn’t selfish — it’s “respecting ourselves and God’s gift of life.” She preaches that good nutrition is healing and if people were to make just one change, make sure it’s to get adequate fiber — 25 grams a day — through vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

Carvell is also a motivational speaker, a coach and gives running workshops. She said coaching running has come a long way from the days when runners were basically just told to run two times a day instead of one. Now, there are new natural-running techniques, some based on Tai Chi where runners learn to lean into the run instead of standing up straight and not to overstride — the most common mistake — but to keep their feet under them, use the right cadence and hit the ground with a soft mid-foot instead of the heel or toe, and so on. She said there are times when she’s tempted to stop her car when she sees a jogger doing things that could damage their body.

Carvell sits — sometimes — and has been doing a lot of writing lately.

“Riding 100 miles against the wind on my bike is easier than writing a perfect paragraph describing it,” she said.

But she finished the book, which came out in June.

More recently, Carvell, who also plays piano at her church, planned to ride her bike through a “church.”

She said Thursday that she and her husband, Chuck Cavell, planned to ride a couple loops Saturday through Theodore Roosevelt National Park — about 48 miles.

“It’s a religious experience,” she said about cycling in the park.

The Carvells would go more miles, she said, except there’s a seven-mile section of road construction and lots of gravel not conducive to road bikes. After the bike ride, Carvell went right to Western Edge Books in Medora for Saturday’s scheduled talk and book signing.

Riding the walk before talking the talk.

Buy the book

Melanie Carvell’s future talks and signings are posted on her website at melaniecarvell.com and on Facebook.

Carvell said the hardcover version of “Running with the Antelope: Life, Fitness and Grit on the Northern Plains” is available for $29.95 from Amazon, at book stores nationwide or at www.fortmandan.com — the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, a nonprofit organization that will get a percentage from each sale.

Grantier is a reporter for The Dickinson Press. Contact her at 701-225-8111.

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