Jon Olson has biked 1,500 miles, from Seattle, Wash., to Gackle, N.D., and plans to ride another 2,000 more this summer, despite the blazing heat.
The retired journalist is doing so without any company; just one man, a map, a bicycle and two goals: to reach the state of New York on bike and to raise awareness for the disease he was diagnosed with six years ago.
Olson thought he had arthritis from years of writing and typing vigorously, he said. So he went to the doctor.
“He told me I didn’t have arthritis,” Olson said. “He knew that right away. He sent me to a neurologist and that was where I was told I had muscular dystrophy.”
Olson’s condition, myotonic dystrophy, is a genetic disorder causing progressively weakened muscles, including his hands, ankles and throat. He has trouble walking steady, chewing without choking and opening a brand new jar of peanut butter.
There is no cure for the disease.
“I have to eat carefully, walk slowly,” Olson said. “But one thing not affected by it was cycling.
“My hands can do everything required by a bike,” he said. “I can’t run anymore, I’m too unsteady … but I can still bike.”
After his diagnosis, Olson said he fell into a spell of depression. He stopped taking care of himself and stopped taking care of his body.
He remembers a conversation he had with the neurologist.
“This was a trip I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “Everybody who bikes long distance knows about this trip.”
Olson asked his doctor if he’d be able to make it.
“You will never be as strong as you are right now,” the doctor said.
Olson traveled to Seattle from his home in Milwaukee and had his bike shipped to him. The first couple of weeks were tough on his body and his mind, he said, but things have gotten much better.
“I’m a lot slower than I thought I would be,” Olson said. “But I can do about 50 miles a day.”
Olson is riding to raise money for research for muscular dystrophy, a condition that can be fatal to newborn children.
“I am only moderately affected,” he said. “I’m lucky I was diagnosed so late because it didn’t affect my work life.”
Olson is following maps created by the Adventure Cycling Association, a nonprofit organization based in Montana that works to assist cyclists in cross-country travel. Olson said every cyclist he’s met along the way has maps from the ACA.
“They are very detailed,” he said. “They direct you around heavy traffic areas and get you around the major cities.”
Olson anticipates arriving in Milwaukee at the end of July, where he will stay for a brief recovery period before he sets off for New York. He plans to complete the last leg of his trip by the end of August.
“I hope to stay motivated enough to finish,” Olson said. “I have friends in Milwaukee that want to ride my last day with me.”
Olson’s best experience thus far came when he was off the road, with a woman he had never met.
“A girl messaged me on Facebook after reading my blog … she has the same condition.
“She used to mud race,” he said. “I inspired her to race again, and that’s the best response I could have asked for.”
Olson pushes through the sunburn and heat exhaustion, only stopping when he feels the need to decompress.
“My message is you can do the things you want to do,” Olson said. “You just need to work at them.”
Olsen has maintained a blog throughout his trip at http://justalittlebitcranky.blogspot.com/.