Taking your dream out for a spin from the Pacific to the Atlantic
“I’ve been a cyclist since I was a young teen. I bought my first bike, a Schwinn model, for $150, with money I earned working 30 hours a week in a fast food restaurant,” said Seneca Healthcare District Chief Executive Officer Doug Self.
He grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas, where there is an annual bike ride called the “Hotter than Hell 100.”
After cycling for more than two months across the southern United States, Seneca Healthcare District CEO Doug Self treats himself to a bit of well-earned fun in the surf when he reaches his destination Nov 18: Jacksonville Beach, Fla.
“It occurs the last week of August when it is hotter than hell,” he added.
Depending on the year the ride drew an average of 10,000 – 11,000 cyclists and Self said he rode the century (100-mile) route nearly every year.
“There are a lot of cyclists out there that do century or multiple day rides totaling 150 miles. Lots of cyclists talk and dream about riding cross-country and it’s something I’ve thought about for a while.
“I got serious about the dream two or three years ago when one thing kind of hit me. In the North State there were a couple of my colleagues, hospital CEOs, that developed cancer around the same period of time and took between two- and four-month leaves of absence.
“I thought to myself, you never know when something is going to strike and when you will have the chance to accomplish your dream.”
He said he thought it would be a shame for someone to think about his dream and want to do it and then have a serious life event happen that would prevent him from doing it — ever.
“From the perspective of my job and responsibilities, you see many good things in the health care world but you also see people in their 40s and 50s that appear they are as healthy as can be but later learn they have brain mass or fatal heart attack. I see this often on my job,” he said.
In his opinion, a lot of people think they are going to wait until they retire to fulfill their dream.
But, “You just never know if you will be healthy enough to accomplish your dream.”
“I had initially planned for this trip to happen in the spring of 2010 and also felt it was a large undertaking. I had started talking with our board and hospital managers and then I chickened out and put it off until the fall,” Self said.
He said as the summer was passing and fall began to close he again thought he would put the trip off until spring 2012.
He then said there were a couple of people who kept asking him about the planning for his trip.
“With my talking about another postponement Dr. Mark Nielsen called me on the carpet and asked me why I was putting it off. The other person who asked about my planning, by far more than anyone else, was our board president, Ron Longacre,” Self said. “He told me he wanted to see me go on the trip. Those were really the two people who kept me honest, kept me from chickening out.”
Plotting the course
Self said he chose San Diego as a departure point for his cross-country ride because it is the key location to the popular southern route.
“It is the beginning of the Southern Tier as listed by AdventureCycling.org, a nonprofit organization that promotes long-distance cycling. This website offers 22 routes that crisscross the United States.”
He also said, “The website sells very nice maps that list distances, bike shops, restaurants, information about locations, hotels and campgrounds, all of which are very helpful as you try to replenish your supplies along the way.”
His said his only bad experiences with the map and information occurred in Arizona and New Mexico.
“Some of the places on the map only had one small business listed and then I learned upon arrival they had closed their doors four to six months ago. This required me to travel another 20 miles down the road and, when thirsty, that’s a very difficult 20 miles,” Self said.
Another major component to his travel plan was making arrangements for his nightly stays and rest stops.
“There’s a website called warmshowers.org. When you sign up on their list, you are signing up to have the ability to contact people to stay at their houses on long-distance rides,” he said.
He said when you sign up on the list you are simultaneously offering your house and host services to long-distance cyclists.
“The interesting thing to Chester is there is an Adventure Cycling route that goes right through Chester. It’s called the Sierra Cascade route that goes from the Southern California border to the Canadian border in Washington state. It’s a very difficult route,” he said.
“When I flew home for a one-week stay, a Belgium couple called from Mt. Shasta trying to contact us. They were cycling from Canada to Southern California. Unfortunately we weren’t able to make the connection.”
He said the website is a really neat thing for people in Chester to sign up for even if they are not cyclists.
He said all the people on the list have profiles and posted comments so you can learn about both the hosts and riders.
“From a bicyclist perspective it was terrific. The organization lets you volunteer for different levels of hosting from pitching a tent in backyard to offering to let someone sleep in your guest bedroom.
“Some hosts make wonderful dinners and loan their washing machines. If you are camping on the road, sleeping in a bed, having a hot shower and a good meal is just great,” Self said.
He said that during his journey rest breaks and nightly layovers found him either camping out or staying at hosted warmshowers.org homes.
Self said at the onset of the trip, which began Sept. 11, 2011, the first two challenges he faced were the physical demands of the ride and the unrelenting heat of the Southern California desert.
“I started in San Diego with normal temperate conditions, just about as close to paradise as you are going to find, Then, I was climbing up to 4,500 feet in the California mountains.
“The highs there were in the 80s and then I descended into the Imperial Valley desert area where the temperature was hitting about 110 degrees as I passed through the valley’s sand dune area.”
He said the first big challenge he faced was the initial climbing up the mountains and riding on a daily basis versus riding every three to four days.
“My body wasn’t used to it. And then my body was blasted with heat.”
He said he was constantly riding in 110-degree heat with many days of no shade and not being able to escape the sun.
“I did my training in Chester, where it was, at the most, 85-degree weather. Now I was riding in weather 25 degrees hotter.
“The 20-mile day in the Imperial Valley, around the Brawley-El Centro area, occurred during the first week of my ride. My muscles were not used to riding, my right hamstring was very tight, the temperature very hot and this was Day 6, the day before my first rest day.
“I really did not have enough in me to go any further; my body was just not in the swing of it yet.”
He said after the first two weeks his body adjusted and he had no further physical problems for the rest of ride.
“Then I got my first break from the heat just east of Tucson, Ariz., when the temperature fell from about 103 to 95 degrees. At that time it felt wonderful.”
Looking back he said that after all he had experienced on his journey he would revise his challenges
“I would now say the first thing that is a challenge is that you sit at home planning your trip and know pretty much that during the month of August it is hot everywhere.
“You focus on the 116-degree temperature of Brawley and all you think of is heat, heat, heat. You don’t necessarily think about ending your trip in November with cold fronts and rain coming through.”
He said the only cross-country climate change that tested his mettle was the desert.
“The heat was like the challenge to my muscles and my body had to acclimate. Fortunately it kept getting cooler the further east I went.”
Continuing eastward he could see the change of seasons occurring.
Upon reaching southeast Texas, southern Louisiana and the panhandle of Florida, he said he cycled through very high humidity.
“My body had already passed through the crucible of heat in the desert; the other conditions didn’t challenge me,” Self said.
SAG-less through the West
During the miles he rode from San Diego to El Paso, Texas, Self had no support and gear (SAG) help. He cycled, pardon the pun, totally self-supported with only a rack on the back of his bike and two saddlebags to meet his needs.
He said he was challenged because he didn’t always have everything he wanted or the ability to get what he wanted.
“As an example I carried three tubes. In my mind I thought if I get a flat I would use a tube and get a tube in the next town. That doesn’t work if the next town has a population of only 1,000 people with no bike shop or place to fix a flat.
“I had not counted on the fact that over a three-day period I could get three flats with no opportunity to replenish my supplies,” Self said. “And then it happened on Interstate 10, approximately 14 miles east of Lordsburg, N.M.”
“There I was with a flat tire, no spare tubes, no way to fix the tire. I had to wait on the mercy of a highway patrol officer to pick me up and take me back to town; this was my first ride ever in a law enforcement vehicle.”
Dad picks up the pace
“My dad, Ralph, had been talking for some time about driving across Texas and at first he was concerned about me being by myself; he wanted to be my SAG all the way across the country,” Self said. “Then he asked, ‘What If I just meet you in El Paso and be your SAG across Texas?’”
Self said this was an absolute no-brainer for him.
“Having gone through the hot desert, then having someone volunteer to bring you Gatorade and water, it sounds like heaven,” he said.
Self said as their trip across Texas progressed, they both were enjoying being together.
He said one day his dad asked, rather bashfully, “Do you want me to go all the way with you to the coast?”
In what he said was an enthusiastic tone, Self said, “I sure do!”
“I guess I’m going to the coast then,” Ralph said.
Self said those few words were pretty significant, as his dad had not traveled much outside the state of Texas.
“Upon our arrival in Jackson Beach, this was the first time my dad had seen the Atlantic Ocean.”
Hitting the wall
“The biggest challenge I had, even greater than equipment problems or those that were physical, was what I would define as a mental problem,” Self said.
He said the problem didn’t occur until maybe the latter third part of ride.
“Riding by yourself day after day after day, on the road eight – 10 hours a day, no one riding with you or talking to you, becomes hard. It was something I had not ever imagined would be a problem.”
“You plan for contingencies like flat tires, being injured, but you can’t plan for loneliness. When that starts happening your mind plays tricks on you and when things start happening that are not according to plan, your mind tells you it’s time to quit despite the fact you’ve already ridden 1,000 – 2,000 miles.”
Cycling through time
“The last thing I found very interesting about my experience goes back to when I was planning the trip and had timelines in mind, like when I was going to hit where.
“Along the way I found family and friends had become obsessed with my blog and were questioning whether I was on time, on schedule.”
He said another cyclist mentioned the same thing about his family asking him the same kind of questions.
“Their asking was almost like a need to make you go faster and what I found after a while on the ride is that your mind stops its timeline mode of ‘I must do this by this’ and it frees you up to enjoy the ride,” he said. “The mind stops driving itself by these deadlines and you start to enjoy the things around you.”
He said he found it interesting that once his mind stopped thinking about deadlines it became fascinating to experience others who stayed in the mode.
“You get to step out of the normal life and see things differently while others are still in that life and being driven by deadlines. This and my mental wall were the two biggest things that struck me.
“I think it’s hard for the average person to step back and enjoy things without a timeline — our surroundings and our life — without the constant need to drive forward to meet a deadline.”