Here at Virgin Atlantic, we’ve always maintained that travel can be a transformative experience, but what drives someone to push themselves to the limit of their comfort zone? To step into the unknown and attempt something they never even dreamed they could achieve? In a new series on the blog, we’re lifting the lid on some truly inspirational journeys to uncover the stories of the people who make them, and kicking things off is the remarkable tale of 53 year old Edinburgh surgeon Chris Oliver, recently back from cycling across the USA.
An epic challenge
It’s easy to lose sight of your own health issues when your life revolves around caring for other people. But in 2006 when 27-stone orthopaedic surgeon Chris Oliver struggled to walk a few steps along the Great Wall of China, he realised he needed to put his own life first – and if he didn’t, his days of fixing other people were numbered.
As a young medical student, Chris sat comfortably within the ranks of the super-fit: running marathons and whitewater kayaking were just two of his sporting pursuits. But as his career blossomed and he rose through the surgical ranks – gaining nine degrees in the process – he lost sight of his work-life balance altogether. The dial on the scales began to creep up unendingly and by 2007 he was classified as “˜super obese’.
Fast forward four years, and Chris had turned his life around to an extraordinary degree. After gastric band surgery, and spurred on by the thought of all the activities he’d be able to participate in again, he lost an incredible 12 stone and his sporting prowess started to return in spades. Before long, he was back in the kayak, competing in triathlons and even took part in a charity cycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats. But the biggest test of all came earlier this year, when he undertook the epic challenge of cycling almost 3,500 miles from Los Angeles to Boston in aid of WaterAid with his 22 year old daughter Catherine.
“When I had my weight loss surgery in 2007 I had three weeks off work and a lot of time to reflect,” says Chris. “I made a bucket list of things I wanted to do, and at first the list was full of easy stuff like aquarobics and walking. I never dreamt I’d cycle Land’s End to John O’Groats or compete in triathlons. But the list just got a bit out of hand; I was always looking for the next big thing. Cycling TransAmerica was a journey I had always wanted to do, and I knew it was achievable if I had the right physical and mental attitude combined with a good support team.”
The seven week journey was managed logistically by a company called CrossRoads Cycling who looked after everything from moving bags and finding hotels to determining the route and maintaining the bikes. All Chris and his daughter had to do was eat, sleep and ride. Getting lost was not an issue as they rode with GPS and cue sheets – but the climate was something they had far less control over.
“Just a few days in, going across California Arizona and New Mexico, we were into a very hot climate,” Chris says. “In the Mojave Desert it was 119F / 48C and like being in an oven. You can die cycling across the desert. We wore white cycle clothing and arm coolers. We poured iced water over us and down our clothing. One day I drank 14 litres of fluid.”
A lasting impression
The open roads of America have always lured those with a wanderlust affliction but this was an entirely different kind of road trip; the pace was incessant but the mode of transport allowed for deeper interactions along the way – with the locals as well as the landscape. “Almost everybody we met was interested in our journey,” he says of the “trail fairies” who turned out along the route. “People were aghast; they couldn’t believe we were cycling across the country. Many thought it was a major achievement to walk to the local mall.”
Perhaps they had good reason to be shocked. After all, a standard day on the road – starting with a 5.30am alarm call and a 6am breakfast of dried eggs – would be enough to finish off the average person by mid-morning,. “By 7am we’d be on the bikes and we’d be riding them for the rest of the day, ” says Chris. “We might not have felt like getting on them, but once we were going it was always ok. We’d ride for about 40 miles, rest for 15 minutes with fluids and gels, ride another 30 miles or so and have a longer rest stop with a meal, then ride until the end of the day, finishing up about 4pm.” With an average daily mileage of 85 miles, it’s no wonder the hotel Jacuzzi formed an essential part of the nightly routine. “Good for the bottom,” says Chris, who was often in bed by 8pm each night.
But what about America itself? The varied terrain and epic scenery has left a lasting impression, inexorably linked with the trials and tribulations of the ride itself. “The dryness of the Mojave Desert,” says Chris recalling his standout memories. “The beautiful red rocks of Sedona, Arizona. The 13% gradient in New Hampshire; the worst climb we had. The Texas feed lots with millions of cows in pens as far you can see. The hilly roller coasters of Missouri – 148 hills in one day, and the townsfolk who turned out for one of our support stops with cinnamon rolls, peanut butter and jello sandwiches and pink lemonade. And the Boston firemen who sheltered us from the rain in their station and showed us how to use the fireman’s pole.”
So what comes next for a man who has cycled across the USA? This trip may have been a life-affirming experience for Chris but his plans for the future are far from tame. “I never quite know what I will do next,” he says. “Sea kayak around Greenland perhaps; more whitewater kayaking in the Himalayas and Africa, maybe even cycling around the world.”
But for the time being he’s happy to campaign for the Cyclists Touring Club for Scotland of which he is chairman, and continues to inspire people through his role as a surgeon and his work with NHS Health Scotland.
“My daughter said: “˜Doing this trip makes me realise I must look after my body for the rest of my life.’ Although she’s only 22 she can see herself doing this kind of ride when she’s 72.”
“I want to inspire others to lose weight, get fit and be active. I have changed so much, many of my colleagues and patients do not recognise me and I’ve lost/changed my professional identity,” he reveals. “But it’s all for the better.”
Chris Oliver is a specialist consultant trauma and orthopaedic surgeon based in Scotland. Follow him on Twitter @cyclingsurgeon. All photos © Chris Oliver.