It’s not your typical 50-year-old guy who posts the ups and downs of his midlife crisis on a blog for friends, family, co-workers and the just-curious to daily follow. That is what Ken Fuirst did this summer at “Ken’s Bike Ride,” the personal blog the insurance broker meticulously kept while bracing for and riding out “My Midlife Crisis.”
There was more humor than frank confession in that subtitle he gave his blog and the strenuous journey where few middle-aged guys of slowing metabolism and growing girth dare go, let alone go alone as Fuirst did. Humor is a good companion on the solitary road he took, and it travels light.
“This became everyone’s summer reading – watching this saga of me go across,” he said one August morning behind his president’s desk at Levitt-Fuirst Associates Ltd. in Yonkers. Though his wife gave it a thumbs-up review, the well-traveled beard the broker grew in the course of his midlife crisis was recently shorn.
Go across America, that is, from sea to shining sea on a road bike that carried Fuirst (“first, second, third,” he said by way of phonetic help with his surname) and 45 pounds of midlife cyclist’s baggage over 3,556 miles. From the cross-country cyclist’s traditional dip of his bike’s rear wheel in the Pacific at Seattle to the dip of his front wheel in the Atlantic on the Jersey Shore on Aug. 1, Fuirst’s journey was 48 days.
He shed 10 pounds on an already lean body along the way, on top of the 10 he lost in his year of training for it. “And then I lost five pounds on the day after the trip,” he said in his 46-employee office, where workers greeted the boss with 2,000 floor-to-ceiling balloons upon his triumphant return. “I think my body held in the food and water for the trip and once it realized I was back at a desk,” shed it like the six tubes he replaced on flat tires in the first trying week of his journey.
“I’m thinking of having my annual physical now while I’m in shape,” he said. Followed by a trip to the tailor with his wardrobe of loose-waisted trousers.
Having raised his bicycle seat to relieve a first-week case of sore knees that threatened to quickly end his adventure, Fuirst went on to raise money for Habitat for Humanity of Westchester with donors’ pledges pegged to his cross-country mileage. Jim Killoran, executive director of Habitat’s county chapter in New Rochelle, told me in an email the cycling executive will have raised nearly $10,000 for the homebuilding nonprofit. That is in addition to the fundraising among corporate partners and clients that Fuirst has done for Habitat and the volunteer labor that employees at Levitt-Fuirst Associates, which he runs with partner and co-president Jason Schiciano, gave this year and last to renovate three Habitat for Humanity homes on Battle Hill in Yonkers for military veterans.
“A lot of people wanted to support me in some way, so I decided to use this journey to raise money for Habitat,” said Fuirst. “In Pittsburgh, I stumbled on the Steelers training camp and a family sitting next to me gave me $20 for Humanity.”
Good news for a grateful Killoran: “I still have the checks coming in,” said the deskbound cyclist.
But his journey across America did not begin as a charity mission. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Fuirst said. “I had the dream in my twenties to go cross-country but I forgot that dream. I didn’t even have a bike until three years ago.”
Preparing for his approaching midlife crisis along the Northern Tier Route favored by cyclists, Fuirst two years ago did a 480-mile test ride from his home in Chappaqua to the Canadian border. “I wanted to see if my body could handle riding and if I enjoy the solitude of doing biking all by myself. I enjoyed that trip and succeeded with it.” He began seriously training in the year leading up to his journey that began in Anacortes, Washington.
He veered from the well-established Northern Tier route to visit a memorial to a former college classmate killed in an Air Force plane crash in Montana and to see Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, a route that steered him from the less than scenic oil refineries and heavy, cyclist-endangering truck traffic of North Dakota. “The route changed and adapted depending on what people said” about what he would find ahead, he said.
“Every 500 miles I would hit a town that had a bike store and at that point I would tune up the bike.”
His bike too survived the rigors of the journey without major surgery or breakdown. Arriving at Long Beach Island on the short final leg, Fuirst on his blog noted he had only had to replace “one rear wheel, some spokes, one chain, two cables, three tires, six tubes.”
“The journey was more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge,” he said. “You have to break it down into pieces and create in your mind shorter goals. Some days it was just get to the next state. Some days it was just get to lunch. Some days on some mountains it was get to the next 100 yards.”
“The challenge was two weeks into it, I was still in Montana, and I looked at a map and I realized how far I had to go.”
He varied his sleeping accommodations from hotels and motels to campsites to the homes of “friends of friends of friends” and those of hosts in the Warm Showers Community, an international hospitality network for touring cyclists.
“I went on the journey to see the scenery,” he said. “Yet as gorgeous as the scenery was in almost every state, it was the people that made the journey. …People who shared their life experiences with me. That’s what made the trip.”
“When you travel by yourself, you’re a lot more approachable by people that want to house you or just want to hear your story.”
Was it a once-in-a-lifetime adventure?
“Once you do a trip like this, there’s no such thing as once in a lifetime,” he quickly replied. “I don’t think I would do another trip across the country. There’s a big world out there to explore.”
Back in the business and buried in catch-up emails in Westchester, “The mental aspect is fascinating,” Fuirst said. “I don’t even think I left. That trip feels like 100 years ago.”
That’s too long to go without another midlife crisis.