Bear-dodging and pedalling: Irish woman cycles across Canada
Irish sports psychologist Dr Karen Weekes talks about mental struggles of 6,400km cycle
Karen Weeks taking in the sights at Lake Victoria on her solo cycling trip across Canada.
When Dr Karen Weekes rocked up to the reception of a five-star hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia just before midnight a few weeks ago, she knew it might be a little difficult to explain that she had a reservation.
“I was in all my cycling gear, had just done 246 km, was sunburnt with my skin and hair also caked in dust,” she laughs. It was three days since she had stood in a shower.
“What they must have been thinking behind the desk, though. It was only when I got to the bathroom that I realised I also had a streak of dried blood from a cold sore which had trickled down my chin !”
Even as she talks, she collapses into a fit of mirth at the thought of it. The ever so slightly startled hotel receptionist was not to know that Weekes had just completed a 6,440 km (4,002 mile) solo cycle across Canada.
She comes from a community of outdoor pursuit specialists
The Kilkenny-born sports psychologist, who lectures at the Institute of Technology (IT) Tralee and lives in Kinvara, Co Galway, loves music, plays bouzouki and doesn’t blow her own trumpet. She comes from a community of outdoor pursuit specialists who rarely do.
She has trekked in high mountains from the Himalaya to south America to Africa, has sailed twice across the Atlantic, has kayaked around Ireland, and last year she cycled across north America from San Francisco to Washington DC with Orla Knight, a physical education teacher in Castletroy College, Co Limerick.
Weekes has also paddled from Zadar in Croatia to Dubrovnik, and around the Norwegian Lofoten islands. With Knight, she then cycled “home”, 2256 km from above the Arctic Circle to her local pub in Kinvara.
“Well, we had the bikes with us,”she laughs, again. “But this last one – across Canada – had to be the toughest,”she admits.
“I always like company, so, for instance, when I kayaked around Ireland it was with Suzanne Kennedy who I worked with in Shielbaggan outdoor education centre in Co Wexford. But cycling is the one thing I like to do on my own.”
She sought no sponsorship, apart from provision of a tent,and rented out her house to cover costs. Her preparation involved mountain bike runs, and indoor TRX suspension training during the winter with colleague William O’Sullivan in IT Tralee.
Her Trek 7.3 bike was fitted with touring handlebars, having learned from her Norwegian transit that racing handlebars would give her a very sore back. She limited the gear weight in her panniers to 23 kg, including a tent, and allowed for up to eight litres of water at a time.
“The second day was one of the hardest,”she recalls. “I had set out from western Vancouver, and had to navigate the highest pass of the trip, the Coquihalla summit at 1,244 metres (4,081ft), in British Columbia. ”
“The climb here is 52 km uphill, then down . . . and after some hours, I felt under pressure. I had no choice but to keep going.”
I don’t think I ever drank so much in one go
“In the US, there’s this system where cyclists can hold out their water bottle to passing cars, and they will give you a refill. But though I tried to wave down a few, I was having no luck. I found a bush, sat under it, sucked some glucose sweets. Eventually, I met a couple in a car who gave me four litres. I don’t think I ever drank so much in one go.”
Weekes knows a thing or two about the mental strains of such challenges, from personal experience but also as part of her work. For her MSc, she researched the motivation and coping mechanisms employed by elite triathletes, interviewing participants in the 2004 Deca-Ironman World Championships in Mexico.
For her PhD, she studied mountaineers attempting the world’s second highest peak, K2, and elite ultra-distance runners, those world record holders/champions in distances over 80 km (50 miles). She spent six weeks at K2’s base camp in Pakistan, interviewing climbers attempting one of the Karakoram mountain range’s most dangerous peaks.
Among them were Irish climbers Ger McDonnell and Mick Murphy. McDonnell subsequently lost his life on a return to the 8,611m mountain, and she has written a musical tribute to him, which is on YouTube.
“Saskatchewan was the mental make or break, because of those endless plains,”she says. “The skies are so beautiful, and if I hadn’t had my touring handlebars I would have missed them. It was the hottest summer in living memory in both Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and I cycled 27 days before I felt one drop of rain.”
“I practised a few things that would inform my work later, as in types of positive self-talk,”she says. This involved focusing techniques of “association”, where she would concentrate on the cycling, the ground, her pedalling, and “disassociation”, where she would listen to music. She also practised “power naps”, or snoozing while standing with her bike. “If horses can sleep upright, why not us also?”
She peeked out of her tent. It was a large and curious moose
Mosquitoes were the big pest in Ontario, and one section of the cycle along Lake Superior involved two days of steep hills in 35 degrees. She tried to avoid unexpected encounters with grizzly and black bears by pitching her tent in campsites in British Columbia and Ontario and carrying “bear bangs” or firecrackers.
When she did wake one night to the sound of crunching stones and heavy breathing, she peeked out of her tent. It was a large and curious moose.
“Apparently, they are more dangerous than bears if they have young with them, but I didn’t know that at the time!”
Throughout the cycle, she says: “The headwinds were the worst, and the long stretches where you had been prepared for a shop somewhere and then found it was closed.
“I used the same mountain bike saddle and chamois cream – essential – but still had blisters on my bum.”
Weakes ate one meal a day, drank protein shakes and Gatorade
She had three punctures in all – two at an early stage in 40 degrees near a village called Webb in Saskatchewan.
“It was so hot that the handlebars melted into the gravel when I turned the bike upside down,”she says. “The tyre was wobbling from the searing heat. I had only gone three miles when I got a second one, and I was totally filthy by the time I had that fixed.”
Knowing her mother would be at least a little bit worried, she carried a mobile phone and wore a Safe Tracker location device. She kept a blog on her Facebook page and was amazed at the response, given how little pre-publicity she had sought.
Weakes ate one meal a day, drank protein shakes and Gatorade – and reckons she is due a visit to her dentist, as a result. She encountered fellow trans-Canada cyclists, including one woman with connections to Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, and a Canadian couple who had first done the route 42 years ago, wearing denim shorts.
Her record distance in one single day was 262km or 163 miles, and she took one 24-hour rest period in total – to change brake pads. She also fell off once, having been distracted by “three gorgeous looking lumberjacks”, but sustained no serious injury.
Her only real wound, apart from blisters, were the two sets of teethmarks left by a large dog on her panniers. Her single potential “creepy “experience was when a car kerb crawled her on a country road.
Eventually, she turned to confront... two elderly ladies. “We don’t see too many bikes out here,” one of them drawled, and then two white-haired heads tilted back into a hearty laugh.
She had expected to get more of a sense of the First Nation culture, but hopes to return some time with friends and kayaks to explore the big lake areas around the Sioux Narrows in Ontario. Within days of flying back home, she was in her own kayak, providing rescue support for swimmers at Kinvara’s annual Cruinniú na mBád festival.
“I cried, I shouted, I roared a times...but I loved every minute of the trip,”she says.One of her prime motivations was thinking of people who might harbour similar ambitions, but couldn’t realise same due to poor health.
”I think an experience like that breaks down the electrons in the brain to the stage where one is in a state of zen. That doesn’t come easy. But when it does, there is nothing quite like it.”
Oh, and she also knows there’s nothing quite like the friends who grouped together to book a surprise last night for her in that five-star Nova Scotia hotel...