An Interview With Bicycle Brendan, the Vegan Athlete Raising Money for Charity
An Interview With Bicycle Brendan, the Vegan Athlete Raising Money for Charity
Brendan Walsh, otherwise known as Bicycle Brendan, is an amazing vegan athlete who set the Guinness World Record for fastest crossing of America by bicycle. We chatted to him about his training routine, where he draws inspiration from on the road, and his battle with mental illness.
What motivated you to set the Guinness World Record for fastest crossing of America by bicycle?
It started in 2017 completely unprepared. I took off on an adventure and rode my bicycle from my apartment in Allston, Massachusetts to Seattle to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. This idea kept ringing in my head, and I thought, ‘How can I do more?’ When you want to do more, you have to raise the stakes in some way. I wondered if I could do it a lot faster and how I could push myself. So, I came up with the idea to ride down the coast and I wanted to raise money for another charity that really resonated with me.
I’ve dealt with mental illness my whole life – anxiety and depression – and I’ve actually lost several friends due to mental illness. When I first came up with the idea, I think within the span of four years, I lost four friends, which was crazy. That’s a lot for anybody in their life and that was at the age of 25.
I didn’t realize how deeply this was affecting me until it came to day one of the NAMI charity ride. Emotionally, it was something I shut away into a closet. We have physical, tangible ways of commemorating people that serve as a reminder for us to live on. We try to honour these people. For example, I had a silicone bracelet with a couple of my friends’ names on it who had passed away. I tied it to one of my backpack straps, and as I was putting it away I realised that I had tabled the whole grieving process in my mind, but it was weighing so heavily on me. The ride was not only a way for me to give back to the endurance community that gave me this outlet to work through my emotions around the grief process, but also to help an organisation like NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
Can you tell us a bit about NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)?
They have programs that help people in their struggles with mental illness. A lot of people don’t know these outlets exist because we stigmatise things like this. It’s a cliché but clichés are such because they are true. We’re really all in this together. I had stuff I had to work through – it’s constant. Every day we need to work towards being better. We may never overcome these things. It’s a constant pursuit of just trying, every day, to get a little bit better.
What have you been up to recently?
Actually, I got this thing called Cyclist’s Palsy where my hands were literally stuck into a claw shape. It happens when you crush the ulnar nerve in your hands, because you have your hands on the bars so much when you’re cycling. A series of things led to poor biomechanics, you know, adding 200+ miles a day, through every type of weather in the East Coast. Imagine ice in Madawaska to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Florida. I came back and I couldn’t ride my bike!
So, I grabbed the one pair of running shoes I had in my closet and just ran one mile. And then a couple of days later I ran 2 miles. I got hit by a car and I tore my meniscus [cartilage in the knee joint] when I was training for the record ride down the coast. I initially wasn’t able to run at all. This made me hesitant to do any sort of high impact activity. I lifted a lot of weights, and rode my bike a lot, which has far less impact than running. So, when I came back, this idea developed as I began training for it.
It’s kind of like this was meant to be, given all the things that have happened to you which led to this moment.
I think that’s true in life. We always think we can package this thing up so nice and pretty – this thing being life. In reality, we have very little control over things that happen to us day to day. It’s mainly how we react to these things. So many people reached out to me after I got hit by a car. One month before I was originally going to take off down the coast, people said, ‘You know, man, we get it. You tried your best. We totally get that you’re not gonna do this.’ I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! I’m most certainly going to do this twice as hard now.’ It was fuel for my fire.
After getting hit and tearing my meniscus, I also had a concussion, ‘one hell of a bone bruise’, and I sprained my ankle. I had top-to-bottom injuries. One thing that was probably the hardest to overcome was the PTSD I had from that accident. I was cooped up in my house, hoodie on, lights all off, incapacitated for days. It wasn’t until I started meditating for the first consistent time in my entire life that I began to overcome the struggles I had with that.
I feel that in this past year and a half in particular, people are starting to realise that it’s how you react to situations that determines everything, since things can change so quickly.
Yes, at the drop of a hat, too. I don’t want people to squander the precious time that they have. If there’s a currency in life, it’s the summation of our experiences. That comes from the time you spend in life and how you choose to spend that time. There are tons of awful things happening around us, but I’m very fortunate to have a job that allows me to work from home. I’ve had the ability to make sure I eat even cleaner than I did before. I’m sipping on a Clean Machine smoothie right now!
How has your vegan lifestyle impacted your training and career as Bicycle Brendan?
I think it’s a mental and a physical thing. First of all, I recover super-fast. I’ll hammer a hard session, whether that’s a swim, a bike, a run, or literally a whole day of all these things. We only have a certain amount of energy, but the food we put in us is that energy. I love this one sticker I saw on a bike that read: this machine runs on apples and bananas. That’s exactly what I think about myself. I digest vegan food so easily, because it’s real food. It fuels us in much more of a nutritionally dense way.
You know, we always talk about calories. I love [Sir Ernest Henry] Shackleton, the great explorer, but most of us are not trying to be the first person to go to Antarctica. You can look at amazing athlete adventurers like Colin O’Brady who had this particular product called The Colin Bar, which was high-calorie and fueled his expedition across Antarctica. It was made of plant-based food, because we’re meant to digest these plants.
For me, I don’t have remorse when I eat these foods. I don’t have a negative impact on any sort of life. I’m not contributing to the deforestation and using up all of these resources that have chain reactions, like the immense number of wildfires out west right now. Do you think that just happened for no reason? That’s a series of poor and selfish decisions that we make that add up to a summation of all these events that are happening. So, if fuels both my body and my mind, which need to be intertwined in order to be the best version of yourself.
Are you hopeful that more athletes will start transitioning to a vegan diet?
I hope so! Not only for the world around us, but also for themselves. I would be so sluggish otherwise. Before I got into a motorcycle accident which changed the trajectory of my life, I was in college. I was eating like any other college bodybuilder. This included chicken and whatever rice and veggie pack I would pick up. It didn’t actually help me achieve what I was trying to achieve. It’s not just counting your macros. There are all of these other sub-categories that build into the big pyramid that make up your body, your fitness, and the goals that you want to achieve.
What’s a memorable experience you’ve had on the road?
The point that made me actually become vegan was when riding my bike cross-country. I was in Eastern Washington staying with this family that had this farm. It was a postcard farm, with a backdrop of these rolling hills and an amazing farmhouse. I was just setting off to leave and I had to ride over a mountain pass, going over the North Cascades region. Just as I was about to leave, this neighbouring farm brings over this decrepit fawn, this baby deer that was emaciated. The folks that lived at this farm were really well-known for taking care of various kinds of animals. Right when I saw this, I realised that I had to contribute, and I had to try to help this situation.
Think about your experiences with a deer: it’s a fleeting, passing moment most of the time. Maybe you’ll lock eyes and the thing just darts off into the woods. You’ll see them and they’re gone, just like that. I ended up bottle feeding this baby deer, petting its head, wrapped up in a heating blanket on the open door of an oven while it was on warm. I was trying to revitalise its organs that were beginning to shut down. There was this moment where I looked into this fawn’s soul and saw its consciousness, where I saw that it wanted to live.
It was so afraid. Mother deer will go out to get food, and they will tuck their babies underneath a bush or somewhere safe and come back later. During this time, the baby deer will not move. The mother in this situation must have been hit by a car or was hunted and didn’t come back.
So, I had this defining moment with this deer which really impacted me. I couldn’t forget about it. And afterwards I had all these connecting thoughts and chain reactions which ultimately led me to realising that I couldn’t keep contributing to the pain and suffering of any of these animals for any reason. And also, I don’t need to contribute to the pain and suffering of anything. We have access to so many things now. I’m very fortunate that I’m able to go to the supermarket and pick out fresh produce, but also farmers’ markets are an amazing way to directly give back to your community. Why buy from a large-scale farm halfway across the world? We don’t have to do those things.
Society is moving forward, and I think we should try to keep moving forward in the best possible way. You vote with your dollar and everything we do is a choice; from what you eat for breakfast, to which companies you support.
Do you have any practices to keep your spirits up when you’re on an adventure?
It’s really just practising gratitude. I’m very fortunate to be able to go and do these things. For example, there was a time when I was in South Carolina and it was raining golf ball sized drops, for more than 12 hours. I’m from New England – we have snow, we have bad weather, but it doesn’t really rain like that up here. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve travelled via bicycle to get to these places. It was raining so hard, that I essentially got trench foot that night.
Down there in rural South Carolina, people don’t really expect to see bicycles. I was a dude dressed in neon clothing, which was because the highway was the only road. Bicycle travel is allowed on the highways down there, with four lanes of traffic with people travelling over 60 miles per hour. I was cooking it down this road, basically acting like a deer! I was scared, so I was subconsciously riding faster and putting myself in safer situations the entire time. To be honest, I am not, and never will be, an amazing athlete like Usain Bolt. I’m not going to set any world record 100m time. For me, it’s about going slow and getting there and constant forward progress. It’s a great metaphor for life.
That night I got into my hotel and I met this amazing gentleman who told me his struggles with mental illness. He had just come out of hospital because he had tried to take his own life. Right before I got there, I was thinking to myself that I was thousands of miles away from home and exhausted, but it was like I was meant to meet this guy that night. It made me realise that this is why I was doing this for. It’s all about perspective. It’s not being like, ‘Oh, someone has it worse’. That may be true, but it’s more about those moments when I realise that I’m actually making a difference.
He said, ‘I wish I could overcome my mental illness’ and I told him that we don’t just overcome these things. It’s a constant thing we have to work on every day. We all have strengths and weaknesses and we need to constantly try to be the best versions of ourselves every single day. It’s not like you just flip a switch, or ride your bike somewhere, and it’s fixed. I say this all the time: movement is medicine. In a scientific way, it releases all these positive chemicals in your brain. I’m out there for long hours and I get to answer all these questions of life, though I often forget them! I’ve had these moments to answer these never-ending questions that we all have with ourselves.
What can we expect from your upcoming book?
I told you about my hands earlier on, and it’s funny because I actually wrote the entire first draft of this book on my iPhone with my thumbs, because I couldn’t type! Nobody tells you how hard writing a book is. I’ve been writing, I’ve been a musician, and I’ve written poetry my whole life. But this is telling the story of my athletic adventures as Bicycle Brendan. It’s also reflecting on all the experiences of my life that have brought me to where I am today. I’m currently in the process of editing this book and I hope to have it out by the end of the year. I look at it as part adventure story but also filled with a lot of philosophical musings, which really helped me achieve things that I worked hard for, even when things got really difficult.