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NIH Record

Raises $6K for ALA
NIDR's Shalizi Completes Cross-USA Bike Trip

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

Calculated at the grand rate of $1.88 per mile, NIDR lab technician Ary Shalizi's summer labors -- pedaling his bike more than 3,200 miles from Seattle to Washington, D.C., on a fundraising ride for the American Lung Association -- weren't wildly lucrative (especially considering that his "earnings" were really payments to the ALA), but the journey's value to him can't be measured in dollars, or on an odometer. Though it wore him out to the verge of quitting, he stayed the meandering, cross-continental course and gained a new appreciation for the size of his country, and the dimensions of his own endurance.


On July 4, the former high school and Division I college wrestler-turned-amateur powerlifter reaped the rewards of his rigorous training. He became the grand national powerlifting champion of the Natural Athlete Strength Association (NASA) by winning first place in his weight category in three of the competition's divisions. He successfully completed 8 of 9 lifts for a total of 1,140.7 pounds on the day. He met some of the big-name heroes of his sport, and even spotted for Montario Woodson, who set an American record at the meet. He also burst a blood vessel in his eye. In essence, he had the time of his life.

"It was hard," he said a few weeks after returning to his job at NIH. "It was really a lot of fun, though. I'm really glad that I did it."

Stretching from June 15 to Aug. 1, the trek burnished the 23-year-old biologist in training (see story in NIH Record, June 16, 1998) and carved away some 7 pounds, but left him with more than a suntan and a sackful of great pictures. He has the satisfaction of having met a challenge that winnowed away dozens when the going got tough. And it got tough early.

The 3,200+ mile trek burnished the 23-year-old biologist in training and carved away some 7 pounds.

"At the end of the first day, lots of people dropped out," he said. "The first day was really bad." Some of the 750 riders in what ALA dubbed The Big Ride evidently expected a serene summer outing, guessed Shalizi. But having to dodge traffic on I-90 out of Seattle then cross the Cascades in snow flurries and 34 degrees persuaded these folks to seek less taxing vacations.

Shalizi set a personal record on day 1, pedaling 85 miles. "It was really cold, wet and miserable at the end," he recalls, "but I wasn't sore. By the end of the third day, though, I was really sore and in a lot of pain. My body was not used to that kind of stress. I needed to get used to the shock. My arms took an unexpected beating -- they absorb a lot of impact. I expected pain in my legs, but not my arms. At the end of the day, I couldn't fully bend them." Medical staff along the route dished out plenty of ibuprofen, he said.

"All in all, there wasn't that high an attrition rate -- the vast majority finished the ride," he observed, but weather and injuries took their toll. "The worst weather was in the Rockies. It was really unpredictable. You'd go from beautiful clear skies to pouring rain in the space of an hour. At night it would go down to 40 degrees, and during the day it would be in the 80's, with pretty bad headwinds.

Storm clouds gather over an encampment just east of the Continental Divide in Montana.

"We encountered either rain or snow at all the mountain passes," he continued. "At the Continental Divide, outside of Helena, Montana, a rainstorm spoiled one of the most spectacular views of the whole trip. Then we hit a snowstorm -- the first time in anyone's memory for that time of the year -- and we blamed that, like all the bad weather, on El Niņo."

Snow closed the route from the Divide into Helena, stranding 300 cyclists at the top. Shalizi was among those shivering at the summit, waiting for buses to take them to town. "We turned the Burger King in Helena into a massive triage station," he laughs. "They'll never forget us."

Shalizi said he rode solo for the first few days, catching up with others at pit stops strung out along the route.

"Who you rode with depended on when you got up in the morning," he explained. Riders would decamp anywhere from 6 to 8 a.m., rising from tent villages erected by tour organizers, who trucked supplies along the way.

In addition to camaraderie, the pit stops offered water, snacks (fruits and trail mix) and bike technicians to fix mechanical problems. "The pit stops were really useful from Seattle to Wisconsin," Shalizi said. "Out there, you could ride for miles and miles and not come across anything at all. When urban density increased as we got further east, you could bypass the pit stops because there were diners and stores nearby."

By intent of ALA staff, the entourage encountered media often during the journey. "There was something about us in the newspaper in every town," Shalizi said. "Out West, we made the front page. As we got closer to the East, the stories moved to the rear pages. We also made some local evening news broadcasts."

The Badlands of South Dakota were a place of unexpected beauty, said Shalizi. "Of all I saw on the trip, that's what I'd like to go back to."

Unexpected pleasures along the route included both terrain and cuisine. In the former category, the Badlands of South Dakota stand out: "It took me completely by surprise to emerge from grasslands to this really sharp, peaked landscape, with amazing banding patterns on cliffs, and an incredible sense of three-dimensionality. It was out of this world. I just spent the day there. Of all I saw on the trip, that's what I'd like to go back to."

Shalizi also said that what he misses most about riding 80 miles a day "is the freedom to pig out without fear of gaining weight. It's surprising how palatable and inexpensive the food is in America's heartland. Wisconsin had the best food. I really like cheese, and the Chamber of Commerce in La Crosse threw a dairy product feast for us." Top meals of the tour were at a diner in La Crosse and at a bed-and-breakfast in Confluence, Pa., a town whose population was nearly doubled by the arrival of the group.

The riders had only 8 days off on their voyage; Shalizi said the night before a day off "was like Friday and Saturday night put together -- it was everyone's night to party." A day out of the saddle meant "raiding the local bike store like locusts" in search of parts, or crashing for 3 hours at an air-conditioned theater, regardless of what was playing.

As the trip progressed, the urge to give in to heat ("our tents would turn to little solar furnaces by 8 in the morning") or weather (including intense evening thunderstorms in Illinois and Indiana that left him in fear of tornados touching down on his pup tent) diminished with each mile. "I thought of quitting," he admitted. "In the early days, there were mornings when I felt I couldn't get on my bike again. But my goal wouldn't let me quit. And other riders helped a lot. There was one who had only one leg, and he pedaled without a prosthesis. He inspired me to go on. Six or seven riders had asthma, and one had survived a double-lung transplant. I thought if they could do it, I could. And the further I went, the less incentive there was to quit. I'd come all this way -- why stop now?"

Shalizi displays the trail pack that included all his belongings for the 47-day trek.

Shalizi was alarmed to learn that overnight encampments were not determined by the difficulty or distance of the ride separating them, but by wherever organizers could find an 8½-acre plot on which to bivouac. Ironically, the hardest stretch of the tour was also the longest -- from Sheridan to Gillette, Wyoming. "It was a 120-mile ride, and there was as much vertical climbing as when we crossed the Continental Divide, although it was more gradual."

The impediments of geography loomed as nothing, though, compared with the nastiness of urban drivers. Shalizi concedes that "in some areas, motorists were really good to us. They would give really wide berth. These tended to be in areas of low population density. The worst was Chicago, and outside Pittsburgh. They really didn't care. They'd pass with 6 inches to spare, and some would yell at us."

"World's Largest Prairie Dog" in South Dakota is appraised by the real thing (tiny, at right).

Shalizi met one driver broadside in Lorain, Ohio, when a car turned abruptly in front of him halfway through a day's ride. Luckily, both vehicles were moving slowly and Shalizi got away with a bruised knee and an undamaged bike. He did, however, crack his helmet and wind up in a hospital for x-rays. But he was released in time to start the next day's ride. Others weren't so fortunate. "A lot of people got hurt," he reports. "There was a compound fracture, a couple of fractured and dislocated collarbones, and a lot of road rash."

As the ride drew to a close, Shalizi was frustrated to be so close to home and a warm bed, yet so far. "Our last camp was in Frederick. The night before that we were in Rocky Gap, near Cumberland. If I had a car, I could have driven home, slept in a real bed, then come back in time to start the day's ride. I got real impatient once we were in the same area code."

The final day was a public relations stunt; any rider not within the D.C. border by 2 p.m. got picked up by a sag wagon and driven to the Mall, where the entire group, outfitted in identical Big Ride T-shirts, pedaled a ceremonial mile past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial as the media gathered around.

A triumphant return home.

Back home, Shalizi put the bike away for several days and caught up on his sleep. "I also had to adjust my eating habits back to normal." He says his bike ride to work now takes about half the time it did before he left, and that he looks forward to riding some "centuries" (100-mile rides) with friends he made from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Above all, the Big Ride left Shalizi with the notion that this is a Big Country. "It was awe inspiring, the sheer magnitude of some of the farms we rode past. The scope of agriculture in this country is impressive. But it's better to drive through a lot of it, I think," he quipped. "I learned that nothing is really flat on a bike. It just looks that way from the air."

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