My road trip with the Stephan Challenge by Maria Estonilo

When Mark first mentioned to me about his cross-country challenge, I seriously doubted myself whether or not I was up for the challenge myself. For one, I have never biked even in my own neighborhood, let alone cross-country. Though Mark made it clear that I would not have to ride the bike, the thought of a cross-country road trip seemed daunting for me.  It does not help that I have never been away from my family for more than a week, and this project required at least 70 days away from them.  That said, it was a surprise to see myself on April 13, 2012 as part of Mark’s crew with the distinction of being the least outdoorsy person in the team. For these reasons, Mark’s Stephan Challenge necessarily became Maria’s Challenge as well.  The challenge to contribute for the benefit of the team even by the simple act of getting up excited for another day of road trip, came with a wealth of discoveries that I would never have learned if I were not doing this Stephan Challenge.

First, Stephan Challenge made me appreciate the full extent of Mark’s fighting spirit. This is a man who tries to keep things under wraps so he does not call attention to himself.  Sometimes to a fault he would keep to himself discomforts he is experiencing. We are about to conclude this challenge and already I congratulate Mark for over-coming the challenges handed to him.  Of course, his victory came not without toll on his body.  With aching bones, sore muscles, blisters and all, Mark’s triumph gives us the argument that no flesh can be that weak if the spirit is that strong. I am honored to have worked for you especially on this once-in-a lifetime endeavor.

Second, this undertaking made me realize the wonders of what moral support can do. Mark is very lucky to have friends who are very supportive of him. The stream of visitors who cheered and helped Mark and the rest of us in every way make this cross-country less of a hurdle but more like am unforgettable road trip, at least for me. I would not have made it as well without Margaret’s constant assurance that she is there to help me or see if I need anything.  Mark is very lucky to have a wife who has great eye for detail. She can anticipate problems that may arise before anyone else does.

Because I did not know what to expect from this project, I was of course shocked to find myself enjoying working with very interesting people who are Mark’s friends. I am grateful to Alex for being patient with me when he taught me how to drive the RV. Visiting crew like Russ, Melissa, Johnny, Antonio, Aggie, and Shane- you guys are great!  Thanks also to the lovely man Paul Pomfret. I also enjoyed Dale Pellitier tale of cross-country biking circa 1979. Thank you by the way for cleaning the RV in Louisiana. Chuck and Lynn Gibbons, thanks a lot for all the goodies.  Many thanks also to Courtney whom I enjoyed immensely her company especially during lunches. Of course I should thank Katy for constantly borrowing my helmet, thus emphasizing the importance of wearing one. I don’t think I would be here doing this “essay” if not for that helmet that saved my neck from that close shave in Texas.

Finally, I like to thank someone for reminding me not to take myself seriously, to laugh at myself. This barrel of man has the infectious child-like attitude of finding what could be funny with the world. Yes I am talking to you, Lincoln Baker. I thank you for inspiring me to work harder and for all the laughter I enjoyed for almost 75 days. We even made ourselves as Mr. & Mrs . Beckman just to make our tandem work. I will miss you all…..!

MARIA

 

The Day Started with Debbie, by Alain LeCoque

As I told Katy, I’m not much for writing blog posts, but I couldn’t resist after biking with Steph Tuesday. Just felt lucky to have been a part of it.

Day started with showers...

Steph’s good friends from home Don Miller and Greg Van Schaak were with John Bailey and I,  preparing to join Steph’s A Team — Katy, Lincoln, Alex and Maria (Steph’s support system) for the day. Steph had had a hard day prior, cycling 10 hours in driving rain, remnants of tropical storm Debbie. Bails and I were a bit nervous, but prepared for another round from Debbie today. Ready to grit our teeth and pedal for 10 hours or so. We figured if Steph can ride 2800 miles+ miles across 90% of the country  then we  could suck it up and handle 50 in the rain. We started a bit late, and as we headed out the rain began to soften and slow.

early morn debbie

We had some tough riding early along some pretty busy highways and up some tough hills. Steph wasn’t fazed by any of it. He just kept pedaling and pedaling. His determination and guts are incredible.By lunch time, the sky had cleared and the sun was starting to peak out from the clouds. For lunch we had a fantastic fruit and sandwich buffet and joked that with the sun coming out, it was clear that even Debbie was no match for Steph–he had taken her best punches and driven her off.

Got a fast start after lunch. Did 10 miles quickly and then came upon a great bike trail created from an old railroad line. The trail was beautiful, shaded and really serene–smooth sailing, except for a brief moment when a  water moccasin popped out right in front of Katy.  With the road noise now pretty much gone, we could really alk as we biked. As we trucked along with Steph, it was great to get to know his good buddies Don, Greg and Ed Chesterton, who had joined us late morning, as well as more about Katy, the SC documentary filmmaker, and Lincoln, the expedition coordinator. Lincoln and Katy are old, good friends from Missoula, Montana and just great people. They both have jobs most of us can only dream about traveling the world creating stories for and about people’s lives. We all shared some of our favorite  stories as well, of our times with Steph. Stories from college days 30+ years ago all the way to now.

At the end of this trail, and with Steph’s foot abscess acting up, we called it a day and headed to the Hampton Inn.  Once we checked in, we headed out to the parking lot and RV for a post ride tailgate. Spent the next 2 hours sharing beers and even more stories of Steph, our families and friends. A couple more of Steph’s friends, Tom Gorman and Tim Shanahan arrived and joined us. Alex, the “Solution”, from Chicago and Brazil, a vital part of Steph’s team, joined us as well.

Great fun with great people.  A bit later, after his post ride shower and massage, Steph showed up and we headed across the lot for dinner. Can’t remember the name of the restaurant, but we had the entire place to ourselves, which made us all a bit nervous. The food turned out fine and the wine and beers were even better. More stories, more laughs. Amazing how by the end of the nite, all these people who were strangers 12-14 hours ago, felt a bit like family. Steph had brought us all together.

Tough saying good bye to everyone Wednesday morning,  but it was a sunny, beautiful day and Steph was ready to ride.

-Alain

Alain on the trail... steph an his riders approach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heading to the Barn by Greg Van Schaak

Like a hungry horse heading home after a long day on the range, Steph’s focus and determination are peaking.  It is a cool thing to witness.  Here are a few more things I witnessed since Monday morning:  all news coverage is focused on tropical storm Debbie, which is centered upon the riding team. Don Miller and I meet at ORD for 7AM flight to the storm center in Tallahassee. Game on.  We land in raging rain and somehow find Steph, Mead and Scott plowing through this crazy storm.  WTF??! So of course Don and I suit up in the RV and hop on a bike and are immediately drenched.  Three hours later the odometer reads the magic number and my fingers look 123 years old. Done for the day. Tuesday morning is delayed a bit while Maria drains Steph’s foot (apparently the stuff looked like a blueberry smoothly, which is now off the drink list forever).  Then we run into the Weather Channel Storm Chasers in the lobby (not a good sign when your about to ride for 8 hours).  They looked at us sideways and said that we would have “issues” on our ride.  Steph asked for the definition of “issues”.  Apparently issues to normal people are not issues to Steph. Duh. Soon we find the most “colorful” parts of the city and pass three (3) “correctional facilities”. Not sure why Lincoln hates us. I guess he forgave us in the afternoon when we rode 16 miles on the coolest path through a forest.  Major flooding on both sides of the path and we saw several homes that must have been Eddy’s in the movie Vacation. Great Day.  The following morning I became acutely aware of that special place located exactly between Bun 1 and Bun 2 which hurt like hell. Lincoln handed me the Butt Butter (chamois cream) and the application was administered by the only person still around me. Me. (Lincoln, rubber gloves are a good idea next time). We had a fantastic summer day ride along 98. Ed Chestnut and I took off to airport after 40 miles and wished the rest well.

I am thankful that I was able to be a small witness to this excellent adventure and I am awed at Team Steph and the real joy that occurs every day – rain or shine.
Thanks Steph, we are indeed well.

Greg

Greg, Mark, and Don pre-ride

Amoeba or well-orchestrated ballet? By Kathy Bell

I was incredibly happy and honored to join the Stephan challenge for a day and a half of riding through eastern Louisiana last weekend.  How do I describe the experience.  I kept thinking of an amoeba which seems to effortlessly extend itself, projecting arms forward and moving toward a goal.  Or was it like a well-orchestrated ballet where each participant has his or her role and, when performed together, produces a thing of beauty.  No doubt, whichever analogy is more accurate, Lincoln is the brains, and Mark (Steph) is the heart of the operation.  Together, they propel the group forward in a way that is really wonderful to behold.  Highlight of the trip:  getting to meet a great group of people.  If one looked at the combined accomplishments and credentials of the group of riders, it would look terribly daunting on paper, but the group was down to earth, warm and a joy to ride, eat and visit with!

Mark is nearing the end of the journey, and is sure to accomplish his goal in the next couple of weeks.  I would encourage anyone who hasn’t ridden yet to take just a day and do it.  The logistics WILL work out, and you WILL NOT regret it!  I guarantee it!

Kathy

Jay Costley and Kevin Shrier join the Steph Challenge by Jay Costly

Day 1, June 13

We are not worthy and “what would Steph do?”

He would get up early – so we boarded a plane in Chicago at 9:30 am.

He must pay close attention to diet and hydration – so we hit the training table at Mothers in New Orleans soon after landing and washed down massive Po’ Boy sandwiches with ice cold Dr. Pepper.  After beignets and chicory coffee at Café Du Monde and pralines from Southern Candy, we were on our way.  Pretty darn full still when we got to the hotel in Baton Rouge – we considered a nap.  Again, “what would Steph do?”  He had already traveled 2,400 miles across the country on a bike over two months in blazing heat and occasional driving rain.  Time to Man Up!  “No Nap!”

Katy & Jay riding behind Steph and the setting sun

We joined the challenge at an interesting time – just as Mark was making friends with a Louisiana State Trooper . Apparently they go about that in as very unusual way in the south and the process involves a lot of testosterone and creates a fantastic amount of tension – but  works like a charm.  We enjoyed a police escort for the next hour during a beautiful evening as we crossed the Mississippi River.Then there was another hour and another … approaching 7:30 pm and Mark had been on the road for over 10 hours.  Kevin and I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that we had been on the road FOR 3 HOURS and didn’t Steph realize we were a little uncomfortable due to overdoing it a bit at lunch?

We stopped at 7:30.  The cold beer roadside when you finish the days travel no matter how long or short is a great tradition.  Kevin and I ran some errands for team Stephan that night and grabbed a bite to eat while we talked about how sore (surprisingly) we were and what an unbelievably deep level of sleep Mark must be enjoying.  We were still having this conversation when we returned to the hotel at 11:00 pm to find Mark in the lobby greeting a couple of new arrivals.  We waved to the three of them and headed to our room to crash – We had a full day of riding ahead of us!

We are not worthy!

 

Day 2, June 14

Bjorn on the Bayou and a breakdown in the buddy system

Steph is the star of this drama but he has an unbelievable supporting cast:  Lincoln keeps the whole thing going and focuses on keeping Mark in line – tough job; Maria who takes care of Mark; Katy who had been on the road for 40 days recording the team’s journey; Shane who arrived when we were there to spell Maria and it felt like he had been there for the summer and Antonio and Agnes (I hope I have that right) who dropped in for awhile to help with logistics.  All have great attitudes, are passionate about what Mark is doing and work very hard to make each day successful.

Those who drop in and join Mark on the road can be another thing altogether.  A great deal was accomplished on Day 2:  we rode in blazing sunshine and during a break for lunch John McLendon felt comfortable enough to wear an outfit I have only seen worn before by Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat.  “We” would later ride through a Louisiana hurricane.  Steph channeled the priest in Caddy Shack and rode his bike through a rain storm I couldn’t drive a car through.  I pulled a jeep over to the side of the road and Mark continued to ride his bike.  Because he did, 12 other SC participants did as well. Crazy? – yes.  Kevin and I spent the next couple hours of the trip shuttling cars ahead of the riders – a critical and under appreciated job on the road.  Cowardly? – yes.

Man down – Steph alluded to this in his blog post earlier.  Two hours after the rain started and at the end of the day, as it was getting dark and the celebratory beers are being handed out, someone realizes that we are missing a rider, Tom Wiscomb, the Bjorn of this story.  We have his bike but we do not have him.  At that point his “close friend” John Olvany reports that his phone has been ringing for some time.  He has also been receiving text messages – the last one, “I am back here – come get me.”  We have left Tom in truly the Middle of Nowhere.  While not dressed like Sacha Baron McLendon (no chance for survival), Tom is dressed in a traditional bike outfit and therefore looks an awful lot like he escaped from a Swedish traveling circus.  After two hours “in the wild” he would have to be considered at risk.  We were able to find him, safe but a little shaken, standing outside a Dollar General store – they literally do have everything there.

Day 2 outstanding performance goes to Steph for his leadership during the storm – hey, it worked.  There were also a number of shameful performances – Costley and Shrier for hiding from the storm in cars; McLendon for the almost full frontal nudity when people were trying to eat and, most significantly, Olvany, for his total disregard for the “buddy system.”

Tomorrow, I will get to Day 3 and Beer with the Baptists and Bourbon Street…

Jay

Heat & Storms by Colin Hall

Wow.  It’s hot in Louisiana and that’s an understatement!!!

Here’s a shot of Steph’s Garmin showing the temperature at 104.8 degrees.  Keep in mind Steph rides closer to the road in his recumbent position so his body and head are much closer to the reflective heat of the pavement than the rest of us.

 

 

 

To give you a feel for how badly the heat can take its toll, here’s an image of my son, Hunter, very shortly after the day’s ride.  Mark joked that Hunter’s snoring disrupted his post ride beer drinking technique.

 

 

 

We learned that the heat and humidity of the gulf area can also bring strong thunderstorms.  Here’s a very short video I took at 6pm from the hotel.  I think it rained over 4 inches in about an hour.  Amazingly, the next morning you could barely tell it rained.

4″ per HOUR Video

– Colin

COOL HAND STEPH by Dale Pelletier

Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke is a  classic story about a rebel who defies the rules. He does things people think are impossible and smiles while he does it. He inspires and leads others and is loved by his friends. The movie has many great scenes that show Luke’s character. He has no problem taking on the much bigger George Kennedy in a prison yard boxing match and he never gives up, even after his foe begs him to stay down…  Just to have some fun with the bosses, Luke gets the entire chain gang to make a game of resurfacing a long country road at triple speed and they just laugh while they’re doing it… And the best, of course, is when he bets the entire prison that he can eat 50 eggs in an hour. (Does that sound like a certain quadrapalegic claiming he can ride 3129 miles in 75 days?) “Nobody can eat 50 eggs” says one of the inmates and it’s game on. Luke does…and he takes all of their money.

Steph's Beta brothers - Mike, Tom, Mark, & Bobby - celebrate the end of the muddy gravel levee ride

Tuesday’s  9 hour ride out of  Breaux Bridge, LA  was a  one-day thumbnail sketch of the entire 3129 mile Stephan Challenge –  an unscripted adventure full of extremes. The day started with a great plan, but within the hour, we were dealing with a bunch of curveballs and sliders. Things changed in a flash. How Steph responded to the day’s  many obstacles  is the Cool Hand Steph story.  And just like Luke, Steph did not quit. He willed his way across 17 miles of gravel, inspiring his friends and ending with a smile.   “24 hours as a metaphor for life” may seem cliche, but that’s the best description for Tuesday’s ride. It’s all about what you do with the cards you are dealt. The day started cool, flat and fast with full expectation that it would be a good 50 mile day. Mike Leonard and his crew were out in front of the riders filming for the Today Show, so there was some extra good excitement and mojo. Just 30 minutes into the day the map called for a turn onto North Henderson Levee Rd.  There was never any expectation of riding  dirt or gravel roads. What should have been a 2 hour, flat, smooth ride at 8 mph, turned into an 8 hour grind at 2-3 mph. Monsoon rains for hours, impassable mud, and then a decision to continue the ride on a gravel trail that runs along the top of the levee. Chicago people, let me put this in perspective – the 17 miles that Steph trudged through the gravel is the same distance from the Winnetka Elm Street Metra station to the Loop. Because of the gravel, he could only pedal at the speed of walking with at least half of the day in a downpour. Some of just got off of our bikes and walked along side of Steph for a few miles.  At the end of the day’s grueling ride, Mike Leonard was waiting to interview Mark and asked how was the day’s ride? And even though he had just used up 2 days worth of energy, Steph replied “Coming from what I’ve been through, what could be better than riding with friends?.” Leonard: “How did you get through it?” Steph: “It was so bizarre and crazy, that all we could do was laugh.”

Cool Hand Steph and his chain gang of Miami, Ohio Beta brothers – Tom, Mark, Mike, and Bobby – got  through the hardest day of the Stephan Challenge and finished tired but laughing.  So, if you can’t get down to ride with Steph before he rolls into St. Augustine, rent Cool Hand Luke on iTunes.
-Dale

Father’s Day by Colin Hall

I can’t think of a better couple of images for a Father’s Day blog than these (photos and text by Colin Hall):

Parker Stephan joined the ride in Eunice, Louisiana.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I took this picture somewhere on the 190 East Acadiana Trail.  Father and son riding side-by-side tackling the miles together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a shot of riders including Lincoln, Andrea, my son Hunter (14), Steph, me and Dale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hunter has torn his right ACL 2x since age 10 and Steph has been his physical therapy inspiration.  Having Hunter join me on the ride was a PT goal.  Thanks Mark for all that you do!

Seven Degrees of Separation Going to Three? By Loius Wilson

I’m sitting in the Baton Rouge Airport with Bill Walker, Tom Willsey and Jeff Malehorn. We joined the Steph Train on Thursday evening and rode from 40 miles West of Eunice to Lafayette through the deep south. We were warmly greeted by the people along the way who had seen Mark’s story on the local news and heard about the Challenge by word of mouth. Linc and Courtney expertly shepherded us through the countryside without incident, keeping us rolling safely, making sure we were hydrated, and arranging for the finest roadside picnic lunches imaginable along the way.

During our lunch in Elton we were greeted by a nice lady named Louanna, who was inspired by Marks story and sought us out so that Jason, her special needs son, could meet Mark and gain some of his determination. Louanna’s efforts to take care of us epitomized the meaning of the term “Southern Hospitality.” Marks story is touching folks all across the country, and his story is providing hope to those who need it most. It was a great two days in the saddle with a group of the ever expanding “Friends of Mark.” It was inspiring to see how Mark has turned his misfortune into such an opportunity to touch so many in such a positive way.

It was also just plain fun. If you can make the time to join the train it’s well worth the effort.

Louis Wilson

Veni, Vidi, Vomiti, by Roger Schmitt

On Saturday morning, May 26, there was Mark – ready to ride;  looking very tanned, strong and fit with his custom designed red bike shirt that read “Veni, Vidi, Vomiti.”  You already know that everything about Mark Stephan (and the Stephan Challenge) is first class, extremely thoughtful and well planned. I should have taken more notice of the shirt and realized the message was more of an omen than humor!

Indeed, my son Ethan and I “came” to Austin to ride with Mark and share just a snippet of Mark’s epic and historic cross country experience.

Indeed, we “saw” the fantastic essence of the man and his support team making this unbelievable journey – so thoughtful, warm, inclusive, determined, resilient – so many really great friends. We experienced the wonderfulness of being out of control of our schedule and our environment – and learned to enjoy dealing with things as they came. Random acts of kindness from friends and strangers occurred with such frequency they could not be counted. One such random event is pictured below. In just 20 miles, I realized you have no idea exactly what you might encounter on the roadside!

I totally got the “I came, I saw…” part of “Veni, Vidi, Vomiti” …. But it was the “Vomiti” part that still had me wondering.  After a grueling 7 hour day of navigating the Austin “Hill Country” (named for a reason) in 100 degree heat, the man who was so worried all day about everyone else becoming dehydrated became dehydrated himself and fulfilled the foreshadowing revealed by his own shirt!

I suggest Mark rewrite the slogan on his shirt to remind him of the proper way to cross a desert or equatorial swamp so that he has a better chance of completing the second half of his journey – “Veni, Vidi, Volumini Wateri”

To Mark, Margaret, Barret , the entire Steph Support Team and Mark’s good friends who rode with him this past weekend – THANK YOU for the most Memorable Memorial Day weekend of my life.
-Roger

the famous jersey and a some pranking