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“If you want to run faster, stop lifting heavy and do more yoga,” he said. It wasn’t the first or the last time Kurt Searvogel would give me that kind of advice, the kind of wisdom that speaks truth to the deepest part of a recreational athlete because it comes from someone who sets his mind toward a goal and barrels on, unflinching, until it is achieved.
And, Arkansas Cyclist Kurt Searvogel has achieved a really big goal. Searvogel is the world record holder for UltraMarathon Cycling Association Highest Annual Mileage Record (HAM’R) with 76,076 official miles. This is how it happened.
My first recollection of meeting Tarzan, a name he earned from his swinging antics during his college wrestling days and which probably still applies, was at a small sprint distance adventure race in Northeast Arkansas where I was competing as a team with my spouse and Kurt was there to tackle it solo. In a sport that combines both mental and physical challenges with orienteering, mountain biking, trail running and paddling, it takes a well-rounded athlete to do well. Kurt came prepared with an arsenal of skills as usual. In the ensuing years, we saw each other frequently at trail runs, adventure races, triathlons and duathlons and many cycling events. He is an All-American Triathlete and a strong Duathlete with a 6th place finish at the 2014 World Championships in Switzerland, but anyone who has tried to compete with him knows that Kurt shines brightest when he’s pedaling.
In 2011, Kurt set a goal to ride more than 200 century (100 mile) rides with a total mileage goal of 25,000. With the goal set, he not only met the 200 ride mark but also exceeded it with 212 rides at or over the century distance for a total of 27,000 miles including the Colorado High 1200K (745.6 miles). He completed that ride in three days. By his own admission, he was pretty proud of himself; that is until someone told him about Tommy Godwin’s record of 75,000 miles in one year. It sparked a thought that would come back to him as his cycling mileage victories continued to pile up. His distance successes in 2011 encouraged him to consider the Race Across America (RAAM) . He knew he could ride 250+ miles per day and set his own consecutive mile record with a 500-mile ride in 32 hours during the Heart of the South 500 bike race. He had confidence that he would do well on the 3000-mile transcontinental RAAM ride through the Rockies, the heartland and the Appalachians. In 2012, Kurt was the 7th solo rider to cross the finish line at RAAM with the help of his 6 person crew who took shifts as he rode hour upon hour, mile upon mile, toward the goal. For anyone who knows Kurt and his inclination toward expecting the best of himself, he returned to RAAM with a partner as the Flying Cyclasana Beasts in 2014 setting the all-time 2 person record time in the over 50 age bracket. RAAM 2014 also brought a new teammate to his crew, a fellow yogi and ultracyclist, Alicia Snyder. When the team needed another crew member at the last minute, a mutual friend suggested that Alicia would be a good fit.
What does a goal-oriented distance cyclist do on the heels of accomplishments like setting records at RAAM? Set another goal of course. Enter the HAM’R, the Highest Annual Mileage Record. This was the one-year distance record set by Tommy Godwin that was mentioned to Kurt back in 2011. A set of strict rules was set by the UltraMarathon Cycling Association and Britain Steve Abraham was already committed to breaking the record in 2015. In November 2014, Kurt made the decision to go for it. He began preparing for a full year of living on the road, chasing good weather, and living much of the time out of a Dodge Pleasure Way RV, the vehicle that has been alongside for many of his rides. He would also need a support team to take the journey with him. That team turned out to be a team of one; his last-minute replacement for the 2014 RAAM team, Alicia Snyder, signed on as his solitary support crew. Starting January 9, 2015, she would be tasked with driving the RV, monitoring his nutrition, watching the wind and weather, making reservations, doing laundry, fielding calls, keeping Kurt on course and following the rules and handling the social media fueling the publicity of the ride. Very few outside the narrow group of ultracycling enthusiasts even knew about the HAM’R. When they started out publicity was sparse except among those
Very few outside the narrow group of ultracycling enthusiasts even knew about the HAM’R. When they started out publicity was sparse except among those few followers and friends around the country who already knew of Kurt’s prowess and those of us here in Arkansas who knew him as our very competitive and driven friend. Kurt was not sponsored nor paid for his effort. He purchased and fixed his own bikes whenever possible, and had to do the maintenance on the RV when the old girl went down. Kurt and Alicia also had to deal with inclement weather driving to and riding in 8 different states while trying to stay ahead of extreme temperatures although he rode in plenty of rain which resulted in a few crashes. Alicia would drive through the rain, allowing Kurt to ride as long as was safe. She was once caught in a torrential downpour that obliterated visibility, cut cell and satellite tracking service, disconnecting her from her normal technological lifeline to Kurt’s location while she could only hope that the outage wouldn’t last. Once he called her as he was riding, told her to meet him at a building close by and to have the door open so he could get in quickly. Arkansas weather has taught Kurt when to be concerned and Alicia says Kurt and the bike barely made it into the van before the wind started blowing debris horizontally as they watched from inside. Kurt had issues with asthma, a heart scare, was hit by cars twice and had his share of bike break downs. He might even say that some days, getting on the bike and pedaling for hours was the easier part of his day. The logistics, arrangements, dealing with the everyday struggles of being on the road, were often left to his teammate, Alicia. When asked how they dealt with things going awry and contrary to plan, she said: “you just have to be able to laugh.” Having someone along for the ride willing to laugh through the difficulties as well as the joys doesn’t hurt. In October, Kurt and Alicia laughed their way to an officiant to perform their wedding ceremony before Kurt got back on the bike to finish his mileage for the day.
One might ask, what does it take to complete a yearlong physical and mental test like this? Part of the answer is in Kurt’s ability to be at home inside his own head. Alicia’s answer to that is that in addition to an inexhaustible amount of energy, Kurt spends a lot of time calculating. While riding for hours, he calculates his pace, his heart rate, his distance and timing his nutrition. His answer is, “I solve problems.” For him, breaking this record was a problem to be solved and he went about it systematically, day by day chipping away at the miles, staying in the moment and not thinking too far ahead, but concentrating on what needed to be done right then and there. Not that it was always easy, it was not. Even Kurt admits he lost confidence more than once. The isolation of riding alone, the fatigue sapped his energy as well as Alicia’s. I asked him if he ever thought he might not make it. I was surprised when he gave me an enthusiastic “Yes!” There came a time toward the end when energy was waning, but being surrounded by people investing their time and energy in his success kept him going and gave him the strength to finish.
This was especially true when he was home in Arkansas. Longtime friends and supporters came out each time he was home, sometimes riding with him in groups, sometimes just one or two other riders for company. He and Alicia credit the people of Florida with giving him a boost all the way to the finish where he would break the record January 5, 2016, and then continue to ride until he reached the 365-day mark and 76,076 miles. Cyclists from all over Florida and a few from neighboring states spent hours keeping him company on the roads during the final days. Few people have the mental or physical stamina to break a world record. Kurt has those traits in spades. He also has the ability to inspire confidence in those around him. He doesn’t just believe in himself, his confidence makes others believe in him, too. Fortunately, he uses that same confidence to help others believe in themselves. Chatting over a relaxed meal I asked, “what’s next?” Of course, it isn’t sitting on the couch. Kurt’s answer was “I want to start mountain biking and trail running again.” He’ll also be watching for Steve Abraham who withdrew his bid for the overall record this year due to injuries and some other bad luck. Steve did break the yearlong mileage record for his age group and will likely be back to try to break the record that now belongs to Kurt.
I have been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of his advice and encouragement as have so many of his fellow athletes across Arkansas. Kurt has inspired thousands across the world as they’ve followed his remarkable Guinness World Record-breaking effort. We here at home in Arkansas have been inspired by him for years.
Header photo Kurt riding with trucks, photo credit Alicia Searvogel
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