Bike ride illuminates uphill battle facing veterans

Fred McCormick

Around 4:30 a.m. April 23, the number 22 loomed large in the mind of Alex Garcia. It’s the upper range of the number of the nation’s 22 million veterans who commit suicide every day, according to one report.

Garcia needed only a few more laps until he had completed the steep, winding 5.5-mile span of N.C. 80. He’d been riding the route for 33 hours in an attempt to bring attention to the number of veterans who die by suicide each day.

“I feel like we’ve lost a sense of pride as a country,” Garcia said. “We walk right past the real heroes, and these guys are suffering.”

In 2012, the Department of Veteran Affairs released a report that indicates that 18 to 22 veterans commit suicide each day.

Garcia became aware of those numbers through the Marion-based nonprofit organization he founded, Alive Cubed, which funds bucket lists for veterans and other “selfless individuals” who can’t afford their dream experiences.

“We fund bucket list experiences for heroes,” Garcia, who runs the day-to-day operations of the non-profit organization said. “And veterans are definitely heroes.”

His appreciation for veterans inspired him to search for a way to bring awareness to their plight. With that in mind he decided to do something he had never done before.

“I’ve never done anything remotely close to this distance, and I didn’t train for it,” Garcia said. “The bike that I used is actually a triathlon bike. Around 105 miles is the longest distance I’ve gone before, and that was the Assault on Mount Mitchell.”

Exploring the best way to bring awareness to the suicide rate among veterans, Garcia learned of a concept that turns the world’s highest peak into a verb.

“There’s a group called the Hells 500, and they coined the term ‘everesting,’” Garcia said. “That’s a group that does the hardest of the hard in the cycling world.”

It occurred to Garcia that he could ride the 5.5-mile portion of N.C. 80, from Mountain Stream RV Park in Marion to the Blue Ridge Parkway, 22 times and achieve the same vertical gain as Mount Everest.

“That’s one of the hardest climbs that I know of in North Carolina,” he said. “Over that section of Highway 80, there’s actually 1,700-2,000 feet of climbing. The challenge with doing the ride to Mount Mitchell is that the weather changes so much, and temperatures can be really low at the top. So this route was better because it gave me the same amount of elevation in the same time without putting people in unnecessary risk.”

The ride began at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, April 22, and finished almost a day and a half later. By the time Garcia had finished, he had gained 9,000 feet more than Mount Everest’s 29,029-foot elevation.

Garcia struggled toward the end of his ride, but he said the cause he was riding for kept him focused.

“At one point in the ride, around 5:55 in the morning, I did a mental calculation, and I needed nine more laps,” he said. “At that point my body and mind were done, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it.”

With the support of his team and a fellow rider who joined him for the last part of his journey, Garcia came to a realization.

“I started to think about somebody coming back from war and the feeling of losing hope that can come along with returning to a world where you have potentially lost so much,” he said. “That hope comes from the support and love of the people around you. We need to do a better job as society being there for our veterans and showing them support and love.”

The journey to 38,866 feet was an accomplishment that Garcia said would not have been possible without the support he received from friends, family and others. One of the people on hand to assist Garcia was Jon Haynes.

“We were running a truckload of supplies up and down the road for Alex,” Haynes said. “We would get calories in him when he would stop for short breaks. It was raining when he first started riding, so we were bringing him dry clothes and socks.”

Haynes believes Garcia’s goal to raise awareness of suicide among veterans was achieved. He points to “several” motorists that stopped to ask Garcia the purpose of his ride.

“It was overwhelming to see all of the people that showed up and began supporting Alex during the ride,” Haynes said. “Besides the birth of my children this was one of the most beautiful things that I’ve been a part of.”

Garcia gives credit to those who helped him push through the 257.7-mile ride, one in which he burned 20,000 calories. But Haynes gives Garcia the props, saying it’s Garcia who did the laudatory thing.

“A lot of people talk about things that bother them,” Haynes said. “But this was really about being a man of action.”

Garcia will use the video from his ride for a movie that will help launch his Love 22 campaign, which encourages people reach out to veterans with acts of kindness.