All about our 70-mile bike ride

6 December 2019

As I dreamed about 2019 at the end of last year, both with John and on my own, the desire to move more as a family came up again and again. Over the last few years of pregnancy and newborn life, fitness has not been our highest priority, but this felt like the right year to challenge ourselves to stretch beyond our comfort zone. We quickly settled on road biking as a fitting activity for our family’s current stage, and when we saw that there was an MS fundraising ride in New Bern towards the end of the year, we had a goal to work toward!

I shared a little bit of our journey along the way, mostly in my monthly updates, but I thought I’d write this post to house everything in one place, both for my memories and for anyone else’s reference! It’s a doozy, so let’s go!

My biking history: In September 2014, I bought a road bike off Craiglist. For a few months, John and I rode about once a week, usually 15-20 miles at a time. Then, I got pregnant, then we had a newborn, then I got pregnant again, then another newborn, and pretty much our only form of exercise for four years was walking around our neighborhood and the occasional hike.

John has a more extensive biking history, including riding in two two-day MS 150 rides in college.

Gear: Cycling is certainly not the least-expensive form of exercise, though once you have the initial equipment the ongoing cost is minimal. My used bike was $425 several years ago. (John’s was a gift from his parents in high school!) We also each purchased two pairs of bike shorts (key for long rides! Mine here and here and John’s), two jerseys (mine and John’s here and here), two water bottles, and sport sunglasses (mine, John’s), and I had to replace my helmet and bike gloves. John uses clipless pedals; I just wear regular sneakers.

Since we hadn’t ridden our bikes in several years, we opted to take them to our local shop for a tune-up last spring, which was about $75.

Finally, since we were riding with kiddos this time around, we needed some equipment for them! After much research, we opted for the Burley Bee trailer, which has excellent reviews and is easy to disassemble and transport. We bought ours used in great condition on Facebook Marketplace for $200 (they retail for $350).

Again, there was certainly a start-up cost, but in a way I think it was helpful — I was quite literally “bought in” to this new activity, and had a financial incentive to follow through.

Training plan: After getting the okay from our pediatrician when Shep was 10 months old, we took our first family bike ride at the beginning of June – a short jaunt on our neighborhood’s greenway. In June and July we aimed to ride twice a week, and in August (the month before the MS ride), we kicked it up to three times a week. It took sacrifice and buckets of patience on the part of our kids to ride that frequently, but I’m proud to say we did it!

Our pattern was to ride twice during the week, and then do a longer ride on Saturday or Sunday. Our typical weekday rides were an out-and-back 15-mile stretch of the American Tobacco Trail (we parked at the New Hope Church Road access), and on weekends, we’d aim for 30 miles (doing our 15-mile stretch twice) or 40 miles (which we’d typically do on the Neuse River Greenway). 40 miles was a stretch for our kids, but we were able to sneak in a few of that length when gracious parents were visiting and willing to babysit. June pretty happily rode along for whatever distance we covered, but I’ll be honest — Shep was often NOT pleased, especially at the beginning. Most days he would eventually fall asleep, which worked out well for everyone :) We usually aimed for a 13-mile-an-hour or less pace.

John exclusively pulled the trailer, which was a perfect handicap — since he would have left me in the dust otherwise.

My tips for riding with kids: invest in a quality trailer, so that the ride is as smooth as possible. And make sure they’re not hungry when you start (and still bring snacks!).

The MS ride: In June, we officially signed up for the 125-mile distance of the New Bern MS ride, held in September. We chose an MS ride for not much of a better reason than because John had already ridden in two of them, but in March, our choice took on a new poignancy when John’s cousin was hit with a sudden and devastating onset of the disease.

The choice of New Bern was easy — it’s fairly close to our home, we thought the race route along the coast would be beautiful, and – most importantly – the waterfront route would be almost entirely flat :) We did not really train on hills, and in the past, I have been notoriously bad at them.

The week of the race, with Hurricane Dorian bearing down on North Carolina’s coast, we received the disappointing news that the ride had been canceled. The organizers suggested riders transfer to another two-day ride in North Carolina later in the month, but we opted to transfer to the Nation’s Capital ride that same weekend. Though it was only a one-day ride, it was based out of Reston (where my sister- and brother-in-law live), and would allow us to ride that weekend as we had been planning. After so much build-up, it felt good to be able to channel that energy and continue with a modified plan instead of waiting several more weeks!

The race was on September 8th, which turned out to be an absolutely gorgeous day – blue skies and about 60 degrees when we started, climbing to around 75 with some clouds later in the day. We chose the 70-mile route for our one-day ride, and pedaled away from the starting line a little after 7am. One fun thing about our change in plans: our brother-in-law, Joe, rode with us for the first twenty miles! He wasn’t officially registered, but since the race was on the public greenway, he just blended into the crowd :) Joe set a brisk pace for us and it was great to start the day with him!

The route was an out-and-back with a loop. The first 20 and last 20 miles were on the greenway and flat and fairly straight, past scenic Virginia towns, wooded stands, and pastures with grazing cows.

The middle 30 miles — whoa, mama. The middle section was on the road, not on the greenway, and it was EXTREMELY hilly – we were almost constantly climbing and descending (what felt to me like) very steep hills. Considering we had not trained AT ALL on hills, I am proud of how well I did on them. One thing that helped: the Virginia landscape that we were riding through was absolutely stunning, with centuries-old homes, rural gardens, picture-perfect horse pastures, and stone barns gliding past. Plus, being on the road versus the greenway — with the need to be alert to cars, watch for directional signage, and occasionally stop at a light — kept my brain from thinking about my body being tired :)

One thing that surprised me: though we consistently saw other riders throughout the day, we were often pretty much on our own. When I imagined the ride, I pictured riding in a large pack, but that was definitely not the case. New Bern is a much larger ride, so perhaps it would have been different had we followed our original plan! The experience felt more low-key than I was anticipating, and luxurious — I don’t usually get 7 set-aside hours to spend with John and talk about whatever we want! :)

By 11am we had completed the middle loop and were sitting down to lunch. Along the route there were several rest stops with water and snacks as well as a lunch stop at a restaurant right next to the greenway. Every MS ride is a bit different, but our lunch was a really yummy sit-down buffet.

We enjoyed lunch, but the first half hour after we got back on the trail was definitely our hardest of the day – it was like our bodies had hardened up from sitting, and my rear, back, and arms were feeling it. (Interestingly, my legs felt fine.) We powered through, though, and about an hour later were approaching the finish line. John’s parents, Nat and Joe, and all the kiddos were waiting for us where the greenway passes behind Nat and Joe’s home, which was a fun burst of energy and hugs right before we crossed the finish line!

And then we were turning the final corner, passing under the arch, and accepting medals and cold towels to a cheering crowd! :) We finished in just under 7 hours, well under our goal pace of 12 miles per hour.

Though the idea of me riding in a 70-mile bike ride sounded incredibly far-fetched as recently as June, here is my encouragement: in this season of life, the hardest part was never the training, but instead, making room for the training. We had to make room in our schedules, and we had to make room in our budget (because weeknight training rides often required dinner out immediately following).

With a three-year-old and a one-year-old, it would have been a LOT easier to just stay home, but the feelings of unity, accomplishment, pride, and freedom that flowed from this goal were one of my favorite parts of my year. Working toward this goal with John was especially wonderful — I was legitimately so proud of him every ride (especially pulling that trailer!!), and cheering each other on was a joy. The feeling of accomplishing something together was twice as sweet as if I had done it alone. I’m really grateful for that. And excited to continue riding next year :)

Friends, thank you for following along, and for your encouragement (and donations!) along the way! I am grateful to have raised just over $1,500 for MS research with your help. Next up: figuring out how we can keep up our momentum in the colder months, when it gets dark too early to ride after work! :)

Any questions? I’d be happy to answer!

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Kelly Strawberry
December 6, 2019 2:19 pm

Way to go!!! This would also have been way out of my comfort zone, but you know what they say…life begins where your comfort zone ends. ;) A great accomplishment for you both!

December 6, 2019 8:21 pm

“The hardest part was never the training, but instead, making room for the training.” This! I have always made a lot of excuses not to exercise beyond twice daily dog walks (and I don’t even have kiddos like you!). But I’ve been craving more movement lately, so I signed up for a barre class when we moved up to Arlington and have also started biking to and from the metro each day. I LOVE doing both, and you’re so right: The hardest part is making the schedule work, not actually doing the thing, but it’s so worth it!

Natalie Thomas
December 9, 2019 11:08 am

Well done! Way to achieve a goal, set a good example for your kids about being active, and raise money for a great cause! I’m sorry the New Bern race didn’t work out, but happy it worked to have you in Reston!