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Air Force vet from USF finishes 66-day bike fundraiser

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Published:   |   Updated: August 6, 2013 at 08:19 AM

TAMPA — She suffered a strained quadriceps muscle that laid her up for a couple days and a nasty upper respiratory infection that didn’t. She went through 10 innertubes and three tires. She clung to the white stripe on the edge of too many highways with too much traffic and too few shoulders.

And this evening, Kiersten Downs pedaled her bicycle into the nation’s capital, 3,800 miles and 66 days after she set off from San Francisco.

“I’m feeling OK,” Downs said during her final stop in Woodbridge, Va., before proceeding to Washington, D.C. “We live in an incredibly huge and diverse country.”

A celebration at the National Veterans Center at George Washington University scheduled for later today marked her arrival.

Downs, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of South Florida, embarked on the trip to raise money and awareness for Student Veterans of America, which provides vets with the resources and support to transition from military to campus life. She raised more than $50,000 along the way.

“She is a remarkably gifted woman,” said retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Martin Steele, USF’s director of military partnerships and vice president for veterans research. “She’s truly extraordinary and has set the tone as a model to emulate for not only members of our Student Veterans of America, but for all student veterans.”

Steele was among several dignitaries from national veterans’ groups and her home university who greeted her in Washington. On her final leg, she was accompanied by seven riders from around the country affiliated with Student Veterans of America, including some USF members.

“The group rides were definitely the high points of my entire ride,” she said. “That’s really what this whole ride was about — the power of community. So many people came out to ride with me. Some of them had never done any long-distance riding, and they were doing 60 or 70 miles with me. I really feed off that energy.”

She traveled with her mother and a friend in a support vehicle.

She said another highlight was the majestic scenery of the American West, particularly Utah and Colorado.

It wasn’t all beauty and companionship, though. Downs said she was nervous about riding on highways with no solid shoulders, “just trying to stick to the white lines,” and traffic in urban areas could be maddening and dangerous.

Her GPS monitor indicated she had climbed more than 100,000 feet over the entire route. And things got difficult when all those fellow riders weren’t on hand.

“It gets lonely on the road,” she said. “When you’re in the saddle for eight hours a day, fighting the mental portion of it is really hard.”

Downs, 30, served seven years in the Air Force and Air National Guard, with three deployments to Iraq. She plans to spend some time in upstate New York, where she grew up, before heading back to Tampa for the fall semester at USF.

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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