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Melissa Pritchard was the first female across the line in the the arduous Transcontinental Race last year, finishing in just over 13 days. Since arriving exhausted at the finish line in Meteora Greece the American cyclist, who has explored the world by bike, has been putting together some fantastic blogs detailing the entire Transcontinental journey and beyond. We just couldn’t resist sharing her latest moving instalment with you.
The story starts with Melissa being welcomed to the finish line of the self-supported ultra-endurance race across Europe by her Swiss boyfriend Jonas Goy. He had finished the race in the days before her and taken third overall. However, it turns out that as big as the Transcontinental journey was for both of them, that finish line was just the beginning of a far bigger adventure. Read on, for Melissa’s story of the even bigger arrival that looms on the horizon.
The best part of the Transcontinental Race was the arrival. I wish all the participants could have stuck around for a good week chatting and sharing our experiences of the race. It is such an unusual circumstance in which to find yourself, surrounded by a bunch of bike freaks or “crazies”.
We each come from a place in our own lives, where I’m sure we stand out a bit for our extreme cycling activities. It’s hard for people in our normal lives to understand us. When I tell people where I bike, they can’t even imagine doing such a distance in a car.
Therefore, at the finish line of the Transcontinental, it was such a wonderful experience to be amongst a group of people with common, although peculiar, interests. Everyone had their stories to share which were very entertaining. Not that I was in any shape to enjoy sharing those stories that night I arrived at the Meteora finish line in August.
Even though Jonas may not have received a dramatic kiss when I arrived at Meteora, he sure didn’t have any resentment and took good care of me. At the hotel that night, he stripped my bike and me of all my dirty gear and gave it to the hotel receptionist to wash. He also took care of my sores after I showered, although he isn’t a good liar and had a hard time telling me that they were going to heal shortly.
I didn’t want to look in the mirror myself. By touch, I could tell I had two decent “quarter-size” open wounds, one on each cheek. I had to carefully position myself to sleep and every time I sat down. That night I was so drained emotionally and physically tired. I tried to explain to Jonas why I was so mad at him, but what seemed like reason enough to be mad before, had long since faded, and I fell quickly asleep.
My sleep was anything but peaceful. It was as if I had my Garmin route burned in my eyeballs. Every time I shut my eyes I could see my green route traced, glowing. I was anxious and nervous, intensely trying to follow it. I must have woken up every hour to ask myself if the race was really over. It wasn’t until I could see Jonas next to me that I knew it was indeed finished and there was no rush to get back on the bike.
In the morning, I needed clothing – I had packed nothing extra, not even a pair of shoes or underwear. But after about an hour of being out and walking about I was exhausted and we went back to our hotel to sleep.
Jonas and I spent a lot of time hanging out at the finish line between our naps. It was pure fun. If we weren’t there, we were indulging in delicious Greek food.
Somehow all the riders who made it to the finish line managed to get back on the saddle for the Frank Simons memorial ride led by his son and Juliana [Buhring]. The next day, Jonas and I headed up to the monasteries perched on the cliffs that I had missed due to my night time arrival.I was sad I didn’t have more time to spend in Meteora, or at least have a mini-holiday after the race. I desperately wanted to rest and disconnect to enjoy the moment and have some alone time with Jonas before heading back to Switzerland to start my teaching job again.
I had booked a train from Venice, and was planning on taking the ferry to get there, to avoid boxing up my bike. I also knew I could spend the entire ferry ride sleeping, which is what I did. The journey from Meteora to Lausanne took me about 24 hours, but I must have slept about 20 of those hours. I arrived on a Sunday evening, and had Monday to rest up some more before going back to work.
However, going to work that week was hard. I was eager to get back in my routine of things and settle into my normal life, but my body was exhausted. It was like my mind was still lost somewhere out there pedalling in Europe and without Jonas, I was feeling a bit lonely.
I spent my lunches escaping off to the nurse’s room to sleep rather than eating, still prioritising my most important basic needs. I would come home in the evening and feel a bit empty, not sure what I was supposed to do with myself. I hadn’t realised how much of my time and energy had been consumed by the race until it was over and I had “nothing” left to do or prepare.
It helped when Jonas arrived back in Switzerland after having stayed in Greece for a week. I also got back on the bike, just ten days after the race. I started getting back into my groove commuting and everything seemed to be going fine, or so it seemed.
About two weeks after the race, when the adrenaline wore off and I started to come down from cloud nine, the same empty feeling was back. People had warned me that after doing such an intense and self-destructive race, one could experience similar symptoms to post-traumatic stress, but I was in denial this was happening.
I also was completely exhausted. All I wanted to do was sleep. I couldn’t seem to sleep enough, and making it through a complete day at school was almost impossible without disappearing to nap.
Jonas and I continued to accept invites to meet up with friends and family who wanted to hear about the race, which was great, but I was starting to worry about myself. We continued with our active lifestyle, but every time I exerted myself physically, my body couldn’t cope.
I was immediately breathless and couldn’t keep up with him. Then things got worse. In the morning I started having hot flashes and would feel really feverish and sick. My digestive system started showing signs of being stressed and I feared that I had put my body through too much with the race. I didn’t know what to do.
That coming weekend, I was going to see a friend in Lyon, France. On the train ride over I remembered sitting and crying, for no reason at all. I put my sunglasses on so the other passengers couldn’t see my tears streaming down my cheeks, but deep down inside I was so frustrated with myself and couldn’t control my emotions.
I told Jonas I was getting worried. He wasn’t having any abnormal symptoms and was coping quite fine, both physically and mentally. I wanted to eliminate reasons for not feeling well. I had bought some pregnancy tests just to be safe.
An unexpected arrival?
The next morning, I woke up early to do one, and it was an error. I should have done a second one right there, but I didn’t. I waited until the next morning, but by then I knew what the test was going to show me.
Feeling feverish and sick in the morning, breathless, huge mood swings, and exhaustion; I had all the symptoms of the first trimester of being pregnant. The next morning, before school, while Jonas was eating breakfast, I peed on the stick. Before I stopped peeing, the two lines for a positive test showed up, and I panicked. Poor Jonas, remained calm and collected, it was me who was in disbelief.
The next few weeks were a big blur, filled with lots of emotions and talking. Going to work and teaching was a huge help and made me stay focused, but when I pedalled home in the afternoon, I was an emotional wreck and couldn’t hold it together. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have kids, but I was just completely caught off guard. Jonas and I had been careful, but then again, there had been a few times, especially during our celebrations, when we got caught up in the moment and hadn’t!
We went to the doctor and of course the question she asked was “When did you have your last period?” The thing was, I knew it was supposed to come during the Transcontinental, but it hadn’t come when it was supposed to, nor had it been what it normally is, as is the case when I exercise a lot and put my body through a lot of stress. I feared the bleeding I had had during the race was spotting and that perhaps I was indeed one or two weeks pregnant during the race.
If this was true, I couldn’t imagine the stress I had put on a little fetus inside of me. If I was pregnant during the Transcontinental, I had consumed an exceptional amount of caffeine in the form of Redbull and taken a fair share of painkillers with my knee problems. But then again, if I did indeed got pregnant after the race, I had drank a considerable amount in the weeks after the race celebrating the occasion. The situation wasn’t ideal either way.
It would only be later, at the first real ultrasound that we would find out the date of conception, which didn’t make sense at all. The 3rd of August…we all know, especially the dot watchers, that that date was completely impossible! [The Transcontinental started on July 28] While doctors insisted my due date was the 10th of May, we were somewhat skeptical.
No looking back
Ironically when we found out I was pregnant, we had planned a cycling trip for the following three-day weekend. We had planned a crazy 800 kilometre ride through the Vosges in France, camping out in random places and riding to our heart’s content. Instead we settled for a three-day weekend in France, cycling more normal distances of 70 to 100 kilometres and sleeping in a hotel. It was that weekend we decided this little baby was conceived out of a lot of passion, glory, and love, at a very memorable time in our lives and there was no looking back.
I had had my doubts as you know, about being able to complete the Transcontinental. I wasn’t sure my body could make it through such extreme conditions, which is what led me to signing up for the race. I was curious and eager to push myself to my limits and do it. As always, this doubt made me over-prepare for the race. As a result of completing the Transcontinental, and winning it, I finally had the confidence to give myself credit for being able to do exactly what I set my mind to doing.
I knew Jonas had the similar mind-set and outlook. Rather than trying to tell me to slow down or stop, he encouraged me to follow my dreams and push myself. We completely understand each other, not to mention, we share a common passion, love to look at maps, talk about the places we cycled and the places we want to ride together in the future. Thanks to the Transcontinental, the fear of the major life changes that were about to happen as a result of being responsible for the life of another human were calmed.
Work colleagues were incredibly supportive. In fact, I was surprised how much my relationship with other women changed once they knew I was pregnant. I went from being this superhuman, crazy woman with extreme cycling interests to being more “normal” now that I was bearing a child.
Long before the Transcontinental, I had bought a flight to visit my family for my October holiday to celebrate my birthday in Oregon. The news came as a huge surprise to them, but of course they were extremely supportive.
Jonas and I spent a lot of time trying to decide how to go about planning for a baby. We had planned for world bike tours and bike races, but didn’t really know where to start when it came to baby planning. We probably went about everything “backwards” if you look at it from the perspective of more “normal” people. However, Jonas and I aren’t exactly normal, so the way we’ve planned things has actually worked out quite well for us.
I’ve really been trying to improve my French, but I completely understand now, when people say “love has no language”. We understand each other perfectly although neither of us speak the other’s native language very well. We decided to move into a bigger apartment, although at five months pregnant, I was pretty useless when it came to moving. We started collecting some baby items, but more importantly we started to dream together.
We had both told ourselves at one point or another during our lives that if we ever have kids, we’d want to share our same passions with them. We both had dreamed of a family bike tour and so this became a frequent topic of conversation. Of course we have to wait to see how it goes when this little girl arrives here soon, but we would love to take some time off to travel with her on bike.
I was already starting to get antsy to travel again before the Transcontinental. Racing is fun and I enjoy the personal challenge, but what I really savour and missed after a year of training was a bike trip. I miss traveling at a slower pace, with no time pressure or exact route planned. I miss the social interaction that comes from spontaneity when time is no issue. I miss learning about other cultures authentically and getting a glimpse into their everyday life as you pass by on a bicycle.
Jonas calls me his “pocket translator”. He loves the fact I can speak 4 different languages and says we can go anywhere in the world with these languages. He frequently reminds me the number of kilometres together we will pedal and the “big things we will do together”. This helps calm me now that it has been a good three months since I got on my bike to ride “for real”.
South America is really where we both want to go, since neither of us have cycled there before. Of course to make it more interesting and exciting, we want to start in my home town, Eugene, Oregon, where Jonas was suppose to also go on his world tour. We both know we have to wait and see how things go when this little baby girl comes, but we are both eager to explore the world together with her.
In fact, we hope to start our family travels together this summer. We’ve applied to be volunteers at Checkpoint 1 of the Transcontinental. It would be a dream come true to make it there and give back to the Transcontinental organisation after all they’ve done for us. Volunteers took such good care of us last year, I’d love to do the same for riders this year. And of course if we can … arrive on bikes.
I never imagined The Transcontinental would be the catalyst for the huge life changes up till now and still to come for me and Jonas. Before [Transcontinental organiser] Mike Hall died last year I had been eager to meet him and personally thank him for giving me the opportunity to participate in the Transcontinental Race. It taught me so much about myself and helped me find direction in my life when I was a little lost.
We all love to ride bikes, but there’s so much more to it than just turning the pedals, and Mike knew this indeed. Thanks to Mike we will forever have our little souvenir from this race.