“I’ve been robbed a few times. I was robbed in Istanbul, in Thailand, in Perth. I’ve crashed, I’ve been shaken down by police in Thailand but if I was asked to name the most memorable moments, the bad experiences don't come close to the top 25.”
The man Breifne Earley describes to me from 2010 is completely different from the man telling me this story today. In October 2010, Breifne, from Co. Leitrim, hit his lowest point. He describes himself as “depressed, unhappy in work, single, overweight and suicidal.” Knowing that he needed to change his life around, he set himself new challenges. He completed a marathon, cycled around New Zealand, went on 50 blind dates, learned to cook and learned to swim, all over the space of 13 months.
Flying the flag of “It’s alright not to feel ok. It’s absolute ok to ask for help”, he set off from London on March 1, 2014, for a five-month global journey. Thirteen months later, he is still on the saddle, drawing ever closer to the finish line in London.
Breifne is currently the only remaining participant of an unfinished race. A front-runner raced ahead when it first began and looked sure to win, causing many to pull out after a few weeks. Concentrating on the charity, Breifne took the decision to continue and see the race through to the finish. The original winner of the race has since been disqualified, however, for breaking one of the competition’s stringent rules. “The rules are quite claustrophobic,” says Breifne, “such as we always have to be travelling east.”
He tells of an article he wrote before leaving Ireland, of the story of the hare and the tortoise, joking at the time that he should not be ruled out. Now it seems like a premonition - “ I could win it despite being probably the least athletic when starting, providing I don’t break any rules.”
IrishCentral caught up with Breifne as he settled for a night in Jacksonville, Florida, looking forward to the next day and his first sight of the Atlantic in 13 months. That day he’d cycled “just 97 km” (60 miles), under his average of 62-80 miles a day. Since then, he has reached the Atlantic coast, officially cycling from the west to east coast of the US. Quite an achievement even without the months of previous cycling.
Breifne arrived in the States on December 18, beginning his cycle across the North American continent in San Francisco. The journey so far has taken him south into Mexico, moving upwards and eastwards across the Southern states, and taking in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
He’s been spending time with some famous faces along the way, staying in Phoenix the week of the Super Bowl, bumping into golfer Padraig Harrington and spending some time with Irish soccer star Stephanie Roche in her new home in Houston.
There are just as many times spent alone, however, in a nomadic lifestyle with no constant cycling companion. “Sometimes I’m lucky and I’ll start talking to somebody and sometimes it’s pretty lonely,” he says. “My grandmother passed away last summer and my cousin after Christmas. The couple of days after were hard to take, I wanted to be with the family.”
“The challenge in a sentence -- to cycle around the word -- it’s probably the easiest thing about it. Loneliness, finding accommodation etc. is probably the hardest part. Finance is a huge part of that stress.”
Unfortunately, a partner in the endeavour withdrew from the challenge just before Christmas, leaving Breifne significantly underfunded to complete his journey. Worrying about how he was going to pay to get home, he eventually ran out of money last week. Taking his own advice, Breifne chose to ask for help.
“It took a lot to overcome my pride, to go on Facebook, take from my own advice ‘it’s ok not to feel ok’ if you’re in a bad place - if you can’t fix it yourself, ask for help.”
Thanks to this request, Breifne has successfully raised $3,200 to continue with the race.
“It was a constant weight on my mind, affecting me physically and mentally,” he says. “The response was phenomenal. a demonstration of what the support had been like every day.”
This generosity of strangers he meets is the best part of this experience, according to Breifne -- “The people and that’s so far ahead of everything else -- so many amazing people.”
“A personal lesson I’ve learned is that people are fundamentally good. If they see somebody who needs help, 99.99% of the time, they will help.”
“In India, Thailand, across the US, in eastern Europe, I met people who haven’t two pennies to rub together but insist on giving me food and water and a place to stay (although that’s not too common). Most people are in that bracket.”
“It was eye-opening on arriving to Texas and people were asking what weapon have you got, have you got a gun, how do you protect yourself? I started to think that all these people can’t be wrong but in my experience...the most memorable experiences are not the bad ones.”
He still hasn’t forgotten the main aim of his challenge -- to promote the conversation around mental health in Ireland, something that he feels is gradually starting to trickle through.
“I think it’s a generational thing. Last week [when he had to ask for money] it’s a pride thing. I didn't like to have to post it. Now I’m ten times better than last week because I asked for help.
“But tomorrow I’d still hesitate and I know, it’s so difficult to get people to ask for help...but I see the effect that it has when people see in my story and I’m looking forward to spreading the word.”
Fortunately for Breifne, he’ll arrive in Ireland just in time to take part in Cycle against Suicide, an annual event that sees participants cycle around Ireland to raise awareness about mental health issues. Unfortunately for Breifne, the rules state he can’t accept a ride off another person and so he’ll have to cycle himself to the starting point on his 5am arrival to Dublin.
After spending over a year living under nomad conditions and constantly upping and moving on to the next place, it’s hard to see how Breifne will readjust to a normal life.
“I have no idea, and I’ve made a conscious decision not to make a decision. Opportunities have been offered to me but I’ve made a decision not to commit to a job offer or location until I’m finished. I don't want to get distracted so close to making it happen.”
“When I get home, I’ll have one hell of a party and then sleep for three days. I always feel sleep deprived.”
And would he set off again?
“Once I finish, probably no... rewind to do it again? 100% yes.”
“When you’re cycling down a mountain at 70 km an hour, you can’t beat it with a drug. You’re totally in control and yet there’s something you can’t control. With this, you get adrenaline like that every day.
“I’m a different person to when I left...I’m now more relaxed, adaptable, flexible, not set in my ways. The quality of things I expect has changed. I’m happy to accept things, I’m not as fussy but I think the main thing is, I now know what I want out of life. I’m not willing to just accept a job or people.”
“In a sentence, my priorities are now about the people around me not about the things - family and friends not possessions.”
You can follow the remainder of Breifne’s incredible journey and show your support for breaking the cycle of suicide (or even offer him a place to stay!) at his Facebook page Pedal The Planet or website www.pedaltheplanet.tv.
Best of luck, Breifne!