Arvid Loewen, a 56-year-old grandfather of six, is a devoted cyclist training for a challenge that will change lives.
In June, the North Kildonan man will tackle the Race Across America, a 5,000-kilometre cycling ultra-marathon that is 50 per cent longer than the Tour de France and requires competitors to finish faster than the better-known race. They start in Oceanside, Calif., and, if they finish, end in Annapolis, Md., no more than 12 days later.
When he's racing, Loewen will consume 8,000 calories a day. He will sleep for no more than 90 minutes every 24 hours. It would seem impossible but for one fact: This is the second time the Winnipegger has attempted this race. He finished first in his age category in 2008.
"It's the world's toughest bike race," says the impossibly fit Loewen. "Fifty per cent of the riders don't finish."
Halfway through the 2008 race, his neck muscles gave out from leaning over the bike. His kids were acting as his support crew.
"They went to a hardware store, purchased PVC tubing, a hacksaw and duct tape. They built a contraption for around my back and a duct-tape sling for my head. I rode five days like that."
The father of three wasn't always a serious cyclist. He describes himself as "a damaged soccer player" who began distance cycling in 2005. By 2011, he won the Guinness World Record for the fastest bicycle crossing of Canada. He rode the 6,040 kilometres in 13 days, six hours and 13 minutes.
But he says he's not racing for himself or the record books.
The deeply spiritual Loewen says he is taking a God-given ability and using it to raise funds for the Mully Children's Family Orphanage, a street-children's rescue mission in Kenya. Since 2006, he has raised $2.5 million for the NGO.
One morning in church, he heard about the Mully orphanage and decided he wanted to help. In 2005, he modified a tandem bike and cycled across Canada ferrying three teenagers from the orphanage. One rode on the back of the bike and the other two rode in the support vehicle. They spread word of the child-rescue charity everywhere they travelled.
In 2006, he and his wife travelled to Kenya to see the work of the rehabilitation centre first-hand. He chokes up as he shows a photo of a smiling 12-year-old girl. He has a picture of the same child as a 14-pound eight-year-old.
That year, he ended his 31-year career at Palliser Furniture. He'd started as a general labourer and ended in senior management. He and his wife, Ruth, raised their three children in a sprawling home with a backyard designed for play. He stepped away from the comfortable life.
The company gave him a one-year severance package, money he and Ruth managed to stretch for 29 months.
"We changed our living standards," he says. The house was already paid off. They sold their second car. They turned their basement into a rental suite. All three of their children were married and out of the house in 16 months.
"Our priorities changed. We've always lived within our means. Vacations were always in Grand Forks or Fargo."
Ruth got a part-time job at an assisted-living complex. They're using their RRSPs to support themselves modestly.
"We sat down with our kids and in-laws and said, 'If we do this, we'll be spending your inheritance.' They gave their blessing. We are going to do this until the money runs out."
They've had help. A couple of friends have given them money. Nothing they raise for the orphanage goes to their expenses or the costs of the cycling.
His eyes shine when he talks about Charles Mully and his 24-year mission to raise the world's largest family. Orphaned and abandoned children, from birth to teens, are rescued and raised in family-like dorm settings. They go to school. In fact, brags Loewen, the male and female high school graduates end up in the top 10 per cent of their classes.
The Winnipeg man pleads with me to make him sound humble, an easy enough task. He has raised a great deal of money for an African charity by accomplishing near-impossible physical feats.
"I don't believe that we should ever think we can do so little that we shouldn't try to do anything at all.
"I'd like to inspire all grandparents and other people to see every child as a gift from God. We love them just like our own children."
If you want to learn more about the orphanage, go to www.mullychildrensfamily.org. If you'd like to support Loewen's charity bike ride or just follow along on his journey, his website is www.GrandpasCan.com.