Kulkea cyclist Brendan Walsh has made a name for himself in recent years by completely re-writing the boundaries of endurance. In 2019, for instance, he won the Guinness World Record for fastest north-south crossing of the United States when he darted from top to bottom in just 12 days' time. We caught up with the record-shattering adventurer (via Zoom) at his home in Waltham, Massachusetts. Over a cup of coffee, we discussed the mental challenge of biking 200 miles a day, the physical challenge of writing a book with 'crab claws', and why he always adventures for charity. The below interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Photo Credit: Brendan Walsh
Before we talk about anything else, I think we need to hear all about your record-setting pedal across the US. Where did you start, where did you end and why did you do it?
The whole reason was to raise money for the National Alliance on Mental Illness [NAMI]. The Guinness World Record was really just to bring more attention to them. In 2017, I rode my bike completely unprepared across the United States for St Jude Children's Hospital. My goal was $4,000. With this trip, I wanted to do more. I wanted to do something bigger.
The trip started in the tiniest beginning-of-existence town in Maine called Madawaska. There is like one store in the entire town. So, I went from there all the way down to the southernmost point in Key West. Before this, I had never been further south than New Jersey – and that was in my van. When you are on highways, you don't see anything. The whole country looks the same from a highway.
It ended up averaging out to about 200 miles a day. On the first two days I did like 220, then I did like 198 on a horrendously hilly, brutal day through Connecticut.
Wait, Connecticut has brutal hills?
Dude, the northwest corner is hilly. I went straight through the belly of the beast on this thing. Planning and logistics are not my best skills; it's more of stubborn-headedness and a desire to finish. So, I just went straight through the middle on this thing. It was like I connected all the biggest hills in Connecticut that day.
Were there any close calls or scary moments as you headed south from there into the mysterious world beyond New Jersey?
When you do these things, it's like you live an entire lifetime in a day. You have every sort of epiphany you would have in a normal life compacted into 24 hours. I would say just about every day I almost died. I would say every day I probably cried. I would say every day I hysterically laughed at something – probably my own joke.
When I was going out of North Carolina – and I was going through miles and miles of nothing with cotton fields and stuff, and not really paying much attention – I was honestly just yelling into my iPhone for search results trying to find a Subway or some sort of food within 60 or 80 miles. Anyway, I must have blown through a stop sign, and when I picked up my head this jalopy wagon was inches from my front tire. It came flying past me. It had blown through a stop sign in the other direction, and when I picked my head up, it was like a whoosh. That was probably the closest death experience on that entire trip.
So, how do you keep your mind focused if you're going 200 miles a day? Like, what are you thinking about during those 200 miles and what goes through your head?
It's a lot of time of self-reflection, and that's a big part of doing this for mental illness, too. It's really important. Most people can't sit with themselves at all for any amount of time. You can notice this, too. The second anyone feels uncomfortable they pick up their phone, and they just burry themselves there. It gives them this time where they don't have to sit with anything that's really going on.
Photo Credit: Brendan Walsh
For me, a lot of this was coming to terms with friends I've lost, and dealing with my own struggles. I didn't realize that Day 1, in the wilderness of Maine, is when I would meet that stuff head-on. In a section of nothingness – no cell service, no people, no nothing – is when I had my first … well, you can look at it in two ways: Was it a breakdown? Or was it a breakthrough? I absolutely lost my shit that day harder than I have in as long as I can remember. I absolutely suppressed all these memories of losing this friend when I was 18 years old. So, it was a lot of time to really look in the metaphorical mirror – which I think is so important – and process emotions that I totally forgot about.
Just before attempting this record-breaking crossing you got in a pretty gnarly accident, right?
Yea, on May 7, 2019, I was on my typical training ride to Walden Pond. I was going about 25mph down this hill, and this other guy turned in front of me doing about the same, so it was like a 50mph collision. I was originally going to leave in the middle of June. But this left me with a concussion, I tore my meniscus, I sprained my ankle and my bike was just absolutely smushed. I went back to zero, and I had such bad PTSD after that; I couldn't even leave my house. I was hood up, lights off hiding in my house for several days. It wasn't until I started meditating that I was able to heal. Then, it took me like 2 months before I really started putting on some miles again.
You said you took on this adventure to raise money for NAMI. Why is riding for charity an important part of biking for you?
A lot of people chase accomplishments, but that leaves you with a hollow heart. I'm not putting down people who achieve great athletic accomplishments, because that does inspire us, but for me, I need a reason to do these things. When you're riding 200 miles a day and it's Day 5, you better have a damn good reason why you're doing that.
Agreed. So, how much were you able to raise in the end?
We only raised $6,500, but I'm very stubborn, because I said I would raise $10,000. So, a year later, I went and ran 100 miles across Cape Cod in under 24 hours, and through that, we got on a few local news stations and raised the remaining $3,500.
These are hard acts to beat, but what's next on the horizon?
This June is my next adventure. I call it the NE6. It's kind of like the Three Peaks Challenge in the UK. What I'm doing is doubling that. I'm going to do all of the six highest summits in New England, and I'm going to cycle the more than 600 miles in-between them – all in less than six days. I will start that on June 19.
And we assume you are working with a new charity for this challenge?
I'm actually doing it for Alzheimer's this time around. Everybody knows someone affected by Alzheimer's. For me, it's my aunt. She was always such a – and she still is – this amazing, powerful, funny human being. And it's just so sad to see that be taken away.
How do you go about choosing what charities you want to work with?
It's all about following your heart. You have to be true to yourself in everything you do.
Right on. Can we expect words of wisdom like that in your upcoming book?
I'm really excited about that. It's called For Those Who Can't, and it's probably my second proudest accomplishment after raising that $10,000. This book is about my struggles with mental illness, losing friends to mental illness and the subsequent Guinness World Record to raise money for NAMI. I also tell plenty of tales of my body acting up on me, and I have a lot of philosophical musings along the way.
Is it true that you wrote the entire first draft on your thumbs with an iPhone?
Yea, so in ultra-cycling you get a lot of weird injuries. I got this one called 'cyclist palsy', where you compress your ulnar nerve for so long that your hands get stuck like crab claws. My physical trainer said I had the strength of an 80-year-old man in my hands. They were stuck like that for two months, so I wrote the entire first draft on my iPhone with my thumbs because I couldn't type.
You know, you might be sitting on another Guinness record here: first book written with crab claws.
Tell us: How can we get a copy of the book and when does it come out?
May 7, 2019, I got hit by a car. May 7, 2020, I got the Guinness World Record. On May 7, 2021, the book will come out. It will be for sale on my website: www.bicyclebrendan.com.
True or False: You went to school for art? True. It was audio production, and I still use it at my current job as the AV manager at Lesley University.
What's the most miles you've pedaled in a day? 223
Favorite stretch of the north-south crossing? The Florida Keys – it's breathtaking.
As a vegan, what's your go-to protein? A big quinoa and veggie roast.
Best thing that happened to you during the pandemic? The health and love of everyone around me. I'm super fortunate not to have lost anyone.