We left Princeton at 4 a.m. on a misty, muggy morning. It was a strange course. The first 200 was flat and easy, then came 200 killer kilometers that involved 12,000 feet of climbing, then another fairly hilly 100 and a flat final leg. The whole thing would take me about 31 hours.
I'd been overseas the week before and was tired and jet-lagged at the start. During the easy section, I dragged along, barely staying awake. But when we moved into the hills, I started to feel stronger. I wasn't fast up the hills—but then, I never had been. My weight gain was a hindrance, but I had deep reserves of power and endurance. I rode through the darkness with an image of myself as some kind of tank, just moving along, unstoppable.
At 2 a.m., we took a break at a convenience store in Easton, Pennsylvania. It was Saturday night and the place was filled with kids coming and going to parties and dates. I got a glimpse of myself in the glass of a freezer door. I had a light on my helmet and a bunch of other blinking gizmos attached to my arms and ankles. My face looked like one of those "thousand-yard stare" photos from Vietnam.
What have I done? I wondered. I had a life once, and now I'm standing in the Easton WaWa in the middle of the night, looking like a cyborg, with thousands of dollars of drugs coursing through my veins. I started looking forward to the moment when the whole thing would be over.
THE WEEK BEFORE I arrived in France, it was more than 100 degrees, and people were dying all over the country. But a few days prior to the August 19 start of the PBP, the weather broke, and the ride started at 5 a.m. in a light chill. Perfect cycling weather.
I was riding a tandem bike with my pal Bob Breedlove, an ultracycling legend from Des Moines, Iowa. Bob called me out of the blue in June and said he wanted to do the PBP on a tandem—as he had three times before—but that his regular riding partner had bailed. Bob liked to ride long and fast; he'd celebrated his 50th birthday the previous summer by riding across the United States in nine and a half days.
About five hours into the ride, Bob mentioned casually that he preferred doing the race on a tandem, because the heavier bike made it so much more difficult. "A course like this is terrible for a tandem," Bob said happily. "All the hills! You'd do it much faster on a regular bike, no doubt about it."
But we muddled through. I felt shockingly strong until the final 200 kilometers, when my stomach started to shut down. Unaccustomed to the aero bars on the tandem, I'd also developed agonizing saddle sores. These were typical woes of ultrariding, but through it all, my legs and heart felt fine. Five months earlier, I couldn't have imagined riding this far and feeling so strong. We finished the 1,225-kilometer ride in just under 76 hours—sleeping only twice for a few hours. The next morning, if it weren't for my saddle sores, I could have easily done it again. Obviously, Dr. Jones's program had worked.