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Chester County Press

Rider 58: Following his shadow

08/08/2017 10:49AM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

For 27 days, 23 hours and 20 minutes -- from June 3 to July 1 -- J.J. Simon of Unionville vanished into his own private journey. It lasted for 4,267 miles, and emptied him, exposed and vulnerable and pedaling, into the vast landscape of America.
Simon was one of 131 participants in the Trans Am Bicycle Race, now in its fourth year, that begins in Astoria, Ore., and cuts through ten states toward its conclusion in  Yorktown, Va.
The race was not Simon's first endurance competition. When he was a member of the Canadian Air Force, he went through rigorous training, and has competed in several long-distance races throughout his long running career, but the Trans American was the largest physical and mental test of his life.
At the start of the race, he was given maps of the course, an electronic device that would chart his location, and a race cap, on which was written his race number, 58. Any companionship he would find would be another rider he would see along the road. He got on his new Domane SL6 and took off.
“I knew that it would be a month of my life, and that I would have to give up everything else in it,” said Simon, who has been the race director for the Kennett Run since 2016. “My job would be to bike as far as a I can, every day, and find food and shelter and not get lost. My dogs? My lawn? My duties as a husband and a friend? All of those things meant nothing. My questions became, 'How happy is my body? Where am I going to sleep tonight? In a hotel? On a park bench? Is there a gas station around where I can buy a hot dog or a cheeseburger?'”
The Trans American Trail affords those who embark on it the gift of seeing the country, from the pristine to the calamitous. By the time Simon entered Wyoming, he was pelted with ferocious winds, snow and hailstorms, which were followed by temperatures that reached the high 90s. He kept pedaling, through Yellowstone Park and Grand Teton Park, past empty towns and shut-down villages. 
“One morning, I woke up to realize that my body was nearly frozen, and my legs and feet were like ice,” he said. “I saw the sun come up over the ridge, and I walked up a hundred feet to where the sun was, just to warm up.  It was an eye opener, and a new set of toughness was setting in. That kicked me in the head to realize, 'This is a tough race. This isn't just about riding through beautiful countryside.'”
Simon rode between 112 and 197 miles every day, surviving mostly on junk food and coffee from gas stations he visited along the route. He ate in restaurants only four times. He lost ten pounds.  In between, he hammered down Ibuprofen to shake the pain in his body, and constantly rubbed Neosporin to hold back the continuous sting of seat sores.
In the 26 nights he spent on the trail, Simon slept in hotels only nine of them. He spent the other nights sleeping in garages, abandoned trailers, campsites, park benches, post offices, bathrooms, and in gazebos located in small villages.
One night in Virginia, he slept at the Cookie House, owned by a woman who has welcomed hundreds of racers before him. He spent the following night sleeping in a field, and woke up the next morning to find that his back and legs were covered with bug bites.
He mostly rode alone, but he was never really alone. During the race, Simon was followed by what are known as dotwatchers -- or race angels -- who tracked the racers' positions throughout the course online, through the location device that was hooked onto Simon's bike. In the middle of nowhere, he would suddenly hear, “J.J.! Come over and sign my poster! Let me take a photo with you!”
Every day on his iPhone, he would see the location dots of the other riders along the route suddenly veer off of it, on their way to the nearest airport to take them back home. One day, he checked his map and saw that the elevation of his next climb would be 6,000 feet above sea level. He needed food. He needed to know where he would sleep that night. He texted his wife, Jacquelynn.
“All along the course, she kept asking me to measure my state of mind,” he said. “She would use positive terms, and helped push me over a few hills when all I wanted to do was stop and eat a meal at a restaurant. 'Don't stop,' she told me. 'Don't stop.'”
By the time Simon reached the Blue Ridge Mountains, he knew he was home free. Of the 131 riders who entered the race back in Oregon, Simon was one of 58 who completed it. He finished in 38th place.
“As you move on, your tiredness increases, and your toughness increases, and that blister that you got 1,000 miles ago? You don't feel it any more,” he said. “By the end, you don't feel any real pain. It was buried under other layers of body demands, intensity, drive and purpose. You are disconnecting from pain so that you can finish. Your body is getting into a mode of accomplishment, and nothing will stand in your way.”
When Simon arrived at the finish line, a few of the dotwatchers were waiting for him, as well as Jacquelynn, her son, and Simon's two dogs. He thanked his wife for never allowing him to quit, and for challenging him on the days when he needed to be. After the finish line, Simon lifted the Domane SL6 high above his head, holding it there long enough and high enough for a camera to record the moment.
A month after the race ended, Simon showed his race companions the hat with the number 58 written in it, his iPhone, his dark racing glasses. There was another companion, he said.
“Every day, there was my shadow of my sunset ride that would always be in front of me as I rode,” he said. “And every day, I would look at it and say, 'Look. Company.'”
Jacquelynn is currently in training for an Ironman competition that will be held in Maryland in October.
Now it's Simon's turn to be the cheerleader.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].