In 2012, Juliana Buhring became the fastest women to circumnavigate the world by bicycle. Here she shares her incredible journey.
The final leg of the journey took me along the Eastern European coast, passing Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia. It was beautiful, abandoned and mountainous. I was so close, and yet it felt so far. I had crossed many mountains, but these last seemed the longest and hardest. I was physically and mentally exhausted.
The last steep uphill in Slovenia, just miles from the Italian border, I had a mental breakdown. Unable to move a step further, I burst into tears on the telephone to my logistics manager, muttering, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” Concerned, he told me to turn around, go back down the hill and find a place to rest for the day. The words “turn around” renewed my resolve. I would do anything not to go back. I walked my bike up the last of the hill and pedalled victoriously over the border and back into Italy.
The day after re-entering Italy, temperatures dropped to -9°C. The cold drained my last energy reserves. I was eating every couple hours just to stay warm. My face was raw with windburn, my lips cracked and dry. My nose ran with watery blood and I couldn’t stop coughing. But the worst part was the frostbite. Even wearing three pairs of socks and two pairs of gloves, somehow the cold and wet still soaked through. My feet no longer ached, I simply could no longer feel them. What I did feel was a dull pain riding through my bones from the ankles up to the knees.
Instead of keeping to my usual schedule of stopping for food after 100 km, I was forced to break every 50 km to get warm and the blood circulating through my limbs again. I stopped at bars along the road, ordering hot chocolate in doubles and stuffing down whatever food I could find. It was like feeding a dying furnace. I would sidle up against the heaters, my body trembling, and fingers blue. There was limited daylight, every day a few minutes less and this consumed valuable time. When the sun set, I would knock back shots of whisky to keep my core warm. My feet were not a pretty sight. Two of the toes were black, the rest were swollen and covered in painful chilblains, my dead toenails yellow and discoloured.
There were only a couple thousand kilometres left, but they might as well have been 20,000. Every day felt like a week, every hour a day. Bob Marley famously said, “You never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice you have.” I had reached the point where I had nothing left in me. Even my willpower was gone. At this level of mental and physical exhaustion, the slightest hill felt like a mountain, the smallest gust a hurricane. Every tiny event was blown out of all proportion. The idea of curling into a tearful ball and sucking my thumb made me crack a smile. Perhaps the only thing keeping me going at that point was the dumb stubborn tenacity I never seemed to run out of.
152 days, 29 punctures, 4 breakdowns, 6 mountains and a cyclone later, I made it back a couple days before Christmas with a world record. The word “crazy” in connection with my endeavour quickly changed to “extraordinary”. Perhaps one has to be a bit mad to pull off an extraordinary feat, but I had proven that it doesn’t take an extraordinary person or ability to do so. If I had waited for the perfect level of fitness, the perfect cycling technique and mechanical know-how, the perfect weather conditions, support, money, I undoubtedly would have never left at all. I believe that many people put off making their dreams a reality, waiting for the right time or the right conditions. There is no such thing. The right time is now.
This story was prepared for Apidura by Juliana Buhring. Juliana holds the first Guiness World Record for Fastest Woman to Circumnavigate the World by Bicycle. She is a bestselling author, children’s rights activist and endurance athlete. You can follow her blog at http://julianabuhring.com/blog.