Just a little bike ride in northeast Alabama of
126 miles and over 13,400′ elevation
This multi-part blog details how I became involved with the Cheaha Challenge ULTRA and what it has meant in my life: To encourage others to “drink the Kool-Aid” and join in the Challenge… and surpass expectations, in spite of short-comings and unforeseen obstacles.
Background: As I planned the Ride Across USA 2014, there were 2 years’ worth of communication via email and phone calls. I was introduced to hundreds of people who were willing to help us succeed in our mission to cycle from from California to Florida. I will never forget where I was the day I received Joel’s call: I was on our wrap-around porch as I planned the route from California to Florida. Very soon after I took his call, a friendship had begun. A retired Army officer, he was delightful and willing to help us out in any way. He mentioned the Cheaha Challenge during that call, but I wasn’t too interested in it, as I had a bigger mission to focus on for the time-being.
I was formally introduced to Cheaha Mountain on July 5, 2014 as we neared the end of our 3,058 mile trek. We really weren’t supposed to climb the mountain that day, but go around it. Joel had offered to lead us out of Oxford, AL in his truck, to keep us off major roads. A decorated Army retiree, he was sympathetic to our cause (HopeForTheWarriors.org). He led us from our hotel in Oxford up Cheaha Skyway to Hwy 49, almost to the very top of the mountain. We climbed more feet that one day than our entire cross-country trip!
Fast forward to 2016. For the third time Joel called to tell me that I should register for the Cheaha Challenge. I struggled with the “What on earth does northeast Alabama have that is so great?” question. It was answered very quickly once I registered and saw how the Ride Director, Brooke Nelson, was so on top of things. Excitement rapidly built as I saw how well planned the event was. As an event organizer myself, I was quite impressed with how the Cheaha Challenge / ULTRA was produced. In May of 2017, I completed my first ULTRA at the Cheaha Challenge. I was hooked!
Out of the blue in August 2017, those who knew and loved Joel were hit with devastating news: he had died of a massive heart attack after a freak accident a couple of weeks prior. I wondered if I had lost my purpose of going to Jacksonville? Just three months prior, we were staying with Joel and Nancy, laughing, sharing stories and enjoying life. It goes to show that none of us are promised tomorrow. We have to LIVE IT every day. Joel certainly did.
During the months of mourning my friend, it occurred to me that there is no greater way to honor his life and memory than to continue the annual pilgrimage to northeast Alabama. What if I could bring others with me to a small town in northeast Alabama to be inspired by this great event that my friend had invited me to?
In 2018 I did just that: I brought some friends from central Florida with me and successfully complete the ULTRA challenge again. We all had a blast. However, in 2019 I met my own misfortune during the event by way of heat exhaustion – almost to the point of heat stroke. I didn’t finish that year, but succumbed to extreme dizziness, ringing in the hears and almost passing out more than once. With the heat in the upper 90s, I was done.
I failed to complete the ULTRA and knew that the ashes of my Finisher’s t-shirt would arrive in the mail in a matter of weeks. However, I did feel that I let Joel down. In reality, Joel wouldn’t care if I finished or not, but I did. I would have to return to prove that I could complete the ULTRA again.
Stay tuned for Part 2.