15 Min Read – When Owen Murray was offered an enticing early retirement package, he did the math (not a stretch for a forensic accountant) & decided to take advantage. After 29 years with PricewaterhouseCoopers, the option to transition to “what’s next” presented itself…about 3 years ahead of schedule. So, with the reclaimed time, he seized the day and set off on a 59 day cycling odyssey; a California to Florida, cross country bike trip.
The 57 year old Philly native and retired Marine had been toying with the idea of a cross country bike tour; had even been riding about a 100 miles a week to prepare.
That said, biking 3200 miles isn’t a trivial undertaking. Consider riding an average of 65 miles a day. Along the route, climbing 100,000 ft of mountains/hills, battling windy, precipitous passes, extreme desert heat, chilly plains, bike repairs… and don’t forget muscles on fire, by days end.
Owen would need to draw on his experience in the Marines, family support & the occasional “angel” to see it through. Having a good sense of humor won’t hurt either!
We sat down with the affable Mr. Murray recently, to hear the details of his adventure. We grabbed a coffee at Homies Coffee Shop, in Manhattan Beach. As we’re still in the age of COVID… it was take-out service only & socially distant outdoor seating.
Before we dive in, a quick bio of Owen Murray:
- One of three siblings, born and raised in and around Philadelphia, PA
- Graduate of Notre Dame, courtesy of the United State Marine Corp. Returned the favor with 5 years active duty, 16 years reserves & re-activation for Desert Storm
- MBA from PennState, Dec 91’
- Started career with Coopers & Lybrand, Jan 92, (merged with Price Waterhouse)
- Owen lives with his better half, Charmaine and, at last count, their 5 children
- Moved the family to CA, 95’
John – What came 1st: The retirement package or this trip?
Owen -The concept of going on a bike tour across the country was before the early retirement. I’d talked to Ella, my 4th kid, about going on the trip when I retired, in 2 to 3 years. But, when I got the early retirement package, I accelerated the tour to now.
Bev – What kind of bike did you take on the trip?
Owen -It’s called a Litespeed Cherohala. LiteSpeed makes titanium bikes. I didn’t know what titanium was. But I realized it was a good but expensive material. It kind of fell out of favor, but it’s coming back with these gravel bikes. So I had an idea that the gravel bike was a good bike for what I was trying to do.
Bev – Is this the bike you rode to and from work? [Owen rode a bike down to our interview]
Owen – This is not the first bike that I rode to and from work. Someone challenged me to ride daily… 22 flat miles each way, as my commute. I chose the single speed because it’s simplistic & minimalistic… which I think is my theme in general.
Later I realized that although it was a flat commute… the winds were still like a hill. So then I bought an Urban commuter bike that has gears, is relatively light and more upright than the single speed. I thought that maybe I could ride that bike across the country. No… that was not going to be a good bike for cross country. I needed a faster bike. That’s when I bought the LiteSpeed. Each bike DOUBLED in price! [laughter].
John – Do you think your time in the Marine Corp or 29 yrs in Corporate America prepared you best?
[Owen interjects before I finish the question…]
Owen – the Marine Corp…you don’t get over those mountains thinking about accounting. [laughter] You gotta have a lot of grit…..To do what I did, I think. Maybe I’ll hurt my shoulder patting myself on the back!
Or maybe I rested up for 29 years, sitting at a desk or something. [laughter]
John – So did Crazy Guy on a Bike (CGB) and Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) help you design the trip?
Owen – Yea, the ACA has the maps and were very helpful. I can’t say enough nice things about them and their patience with me. I’m relatively frugal. They talked me through what I should buy. They sell stuff too, on their website.
So, if they sell a certain kind of bag to carry, it’s kind of time tested. If it’s on their website, other people who toured have used it, rated it and what not. That cut down on the research. As a forensic accountant, you can suffer from paralysis by analysis. [laughter].
Helpful Guidance from “Crazy Guy on a Bike”
Owen – The ACA also constantly referred to the CGB [website]. Those were the authentic journals, like I did. These are people writing while they were out there [riding]. I started noticing that you see the same names [journalers] because some people do this all the time.
I was sucking information out of both ACA & CGB. CGB was just reading about what guys have done. When I decided I might do this, I found a guy that was out there…his name is George. He turned 74 while he was on his tour. George was a very different person from me and a much more experienced tour person. But, he was going across the country 4 weeks ahead of me. So that proved to me that [the route] was open. I sent him a couple of notes and he did respond to me afterwards.
So, I used both sites, but for different things. The CGB was a very good website for honest feedback.
John – What a wonderful gift of time with Sara (daughter). It’s such a unique experience. You mentioned It was originally going to be your younger daughter but, because the timeframe changed, Sara moved up in the order?
Owen – Yea… luckily I have 5 [laughter].
John – You spread them out nicely!
Owen – I don’t know if I planned that… you might have to talk to Charmaine about that.
John – Did you always plan for a family member to crew for you?
Owen – I wanted to do a supported ride. I thought it was a higher chance of success. Unsupported meant carrying more gear, camping, more training. It was always supported, although it wasn’t always one of the kids. That was one of the concepts. Or, I could have also gone with some tour [company].
John – In addition to Sara being your media consultant was she able to get school work done?
Owen – Yea…She did. Early in the trip she was in the same time zone. Sara had class [virtually] from 7 to noon, so she would get up and do that.
Early on in the tour, she’s way more important to me. She’d go to school, wrap up and then leave in the car and come by where I am. Almost everyday, she gives me something and asks me what I need.
After a certain point…around Austin, I figured out that I didn’t need her road support as much. As we go, I get stronger, better, more confident. Also, there’s more convenience stores and less rural areas. I can count on something, every 20-30 miles, to refill. So, I don’t have to carry as much stuff.
As the timezones switched, she would go to school later… 8, 9, 10am. By the time she’s going to school at 10am, she’s not done to almost 3pm. By then I almost didn’t need her support while riding. She was still extremely helpful, in that she was carrying all the gear, going to the hotel and getting everything setup. I probably could have thanked her more…
John – She was clearly critical to your success
Owen – OHHH… in the beginning, she was the most critical! She was surely the MVP of the tour…OK. But, even more critical, earlier in the tour.
John – What do you think she took away from this experience?
Owen – First, I think seeing the diversity of our country… the rural areas… what’s going on compared to where she grew up in Manhattan Beach, Tokyo and LaJolla. There’s a lot of differences out there. That’s one issue.
Two, this is a 17 yr old girl and I’m just saying: Holiday Inn in DeFuniak, FL… see ya….done… I’m out. And she has to get our stuff out of there, check out of that hotel, check in to the next hotel.
So the skills of dealing with life on the road and the maturity for a kid that age… I think those things are invaluable. Also, she hadn’t driven on the highway that much. She had the keys to the car. Sara had to be resourceful. She had to navigate all that and I think that’s a strong thing.
And three, just seeing someone follow through on some crazyass thing they’ve kind of set their mind to…. She’d drive over those hills and ask “Dad, how’d you get over that, I didn’t think the car was going to make it”. That kind of stuff…seeing that drive, was kind of cool.
John – What did you think of the journaling?
Owen – I’d never journaled before. I’ve never been on social media because of my job. You don’t want stuff out there cause the other side will try to use it against you as an expert witness or a forensic accountant.
I had no presence out there. The journal was extremely helpful to me. Although, sometimes it was hard and I wrote less. There was a correlation between how much I wrote (CGB) and how hard the day was.
But, as you get more people giving you feedback and cheering for you, like Bev on Instagram, it really helped me. It helped me… you know… morale wise. It kept me going. I can’t turn back, all these people are watching me! [laughter]. I gotta get over that damn mountain!
We had feedback from people, thanks to the journal, that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
A Welcome distraction…
Given the unique times of COVID and the election people were just looking for something else. They’re just getting inundated… maybe bored, with sitting at home, walking on eggshells. They got an election that’s crazy regardless of what side you’re on… and here’s this knucklehead who gets on a bike and starts pedaling. And he’s writing about it and all these cool pictures to see.
So, for me, I felt like I was giving back, so other people could see. Also, I’ve got like 3 guys that read the journal & are thinking about going out… and COVID is mostly their issue. You know, is it safe? Are things open? Stuff like that.
I enjoyed it, but it was burdensome at times. With anything like that, you have to keep the momentum. If Sara would miss a couple of days on Instagram, we’re going to lose followers if we do that…
Bev – Or they start worrying! [laughs].
Yea, they start worrying! We had at one point 90 followers, I said to Sara we got to get to 100.
The Kardashians, I gotta catch them!. [laughter]
John– Your bike, fully loaded, weighed about 45 pounds. I guess the blessing here was Sara [crew, daughter] could carry the panniers at times.
Owen – 90% of the time! I only did 6 days [with full gear].
John – Is it necessary to carry that much stuff? Would it have been different if you were riding solo [unsupported]?
Owen -” I think the lightest you could get down to would be 15-20 lbs of gear. The bike weighs around 20lbs. I had a process where I re-interviewed everything in the bags, for whether or not you deserved to be on the bike. It was kind of like someone taking over a job and you need to interview all your [employees]. If you can’t articulate to me what you do, you don’t have a job. So, if something was on my bike that I wasn’t going use, it was out.
When you have someone like Sara & you’re supported, you have a “Bat Phone” and she can get to you within an hour. You don’t have to carry extra stuff to repair your bike. I can just call in the wagon and she can take you to the bike shop… So, that was really valuable!” Some of the things I brought I didn’t necessarily need, in the supported role.
John – So, how many flat tires?
Owen – 9! All in the back. I don’t know, maybe I have big butt? Maybe it’s not as big as it used to be. [laughter].
John – Maybe because of the Panniers?
Owen – It’s kinda funny, I did get a couple more flats with the panniers. Maybe it adds to the flats. I only used the panniers about 6 days out of 49… but it did seem disproportionate.
It’s fair to say: 3200 miles, nine flats, You know…every 300 to 400 miles…. That’s probably about right. I don’t think I was doing anything too stupid.
Bev – How quickly did you get your [tire changing] time down?
Owen – Under 15 minutes. I think if you attack it you could get it down to under 5 min. But I never attacked it, like I had to get it done. I was never like a racecar driver. It was more of a journey. Also, I valued that time & started to get more strategic about where I fixed it. If there was a tree and a bench, I might walk the bike over there and fix the bike.
John – The right food and water. What did you finally find that you needed in order to fuel yourself ?
Owen – Well, we rode from Manhattan Beach [starting point] down to San Diego. It was me & this guy Dave [former All American Swimmer from UCLA]. He liked touring and is a really nice person!
We stopped along the way and I ran into my buddy Al. [Al wanted to have a couple of drinks to celebrate my retirement] So, we had some champagne & rum. That was at mile 20… so I realized… I can’t have alcohol, during the ride… cause it’s going to kill me! [laughter]
Lessons early in the trip…
Not just that I’m going to get drunk. It dehydrates you and this is already going to be challenging enough. I didn’t need to do things to make it harder on me. So one issue was what NOT to eat or do. Alcohol was one of those. Anything that’s going to cause your body to not be at its peak performance, is stupid… until the end of the day.
Two…I understood water and drinking it, but wasn’t used to being out on my own, and carrying it on a bike. I knew from the Marine Corp that I had to drink a lot of water. But, it took me until day 4 to get my 2nd water bottle [on my bike]. I didn’t realize the importance of carrying all those fluids with you…to sustain you.
And then, the electrolyte thing… Like Gatorade… I really needed to get ahead of that. I was getting ahead on the water, but not on the electrolytes and food. It’s almost like you need to eat when you’re not hungry. You need to put wood on the fire or it’s not going to burn. It took me until I was crushed in the desert and the mountains to realize that I’m in way over my head. I needed to up my game now or I’m going to continue to get crushed… the mountains are only getting bigger. That was eye opening to me, needing the electrolytes.
But by the time I got to Arizona I probably had the right balance. Relying on Sara in the right way, I didn’t need to carry all this stuff & by then I had bike jerseys, so I could load up my back with fuel, extra water etc… I started getting smarter.
High Tech Fuel…
A friend of mine, Jennifer, who was a bike rider for San Diego State recommended some food that was more technologically sound. The kind of stuff that you pay too much for… I would call them high tech sugar cubes, but they’re more than that. They’re good…and you need them. They are very dense, small and easy to carry. So Jennifer & another friend, Joe gave me several versions of that stuff. Things like GU, Blocks and little tabs you put into your water, for electrolytes. Once I got those, it really upped my game.
But it took me until East of Phoenix to find the right stuff to have with me. So, [at first] I was screwing up. Unfortunately, when you go from West to East, the trip is front loaded with the harder days… and getting through the desert; 90 miles, from Brawley to Blyth, CA at 105 degrees, when I wasn’t all the way prepared. I had Sara, and she came and saved me. Out of the gate, that was one of the harder days!
John – What was the scariest part of the trek? Scariest Moments?
Owen – Alpine, CA to Jacumba, CA, right on the border of Mexico. Going to that town was really hilly. It was probably one of the hardest three days. I was riding with Jennifer. That’s where she told me, “how do you eat an elephant” [one bite at a time].
Jennifer rode for San Diego State and I would say is a top 1 or 2% bike rider. She’s strong, she knows what she’s doing…very experienced. And she rode those hills with me, east of San Diego.
Jennifer was telling me to drink chocolate milk, so I drank it the whole trip. I had to listen…
So she says to me, “Hey, what do you think about Sara just driving you over the top of this hill and down? This hill’s a little bit tough…” And I’m like, Marines take hills! What the hell? [laughter]
But I had to…[pauses] … I think some people… you can tell them not to stick your hand in the fire. Other people have to stick their hand in the fire to figure it out. I’m definitely one of those who has to stick your hand in the fire. So, after I got burned a few times, I realized Jennifer was right!
Well, I went down that hill. It’s about 4000 feet [of elevation] down to zero. Going down that pass was winding & windy. I got the wind hitting me & lots of trucks on the road. I just felt like I could get blown off the road… or onto the road.
In one way, descending was the scariest part. So, I would go a mile or two then stop. This was a descent so it wasn’t because I was tired. It was to get my wits about me…so I could get ready, mentally, to go again. I’d stop, look around & tell myself “You can do this, c’mon… Jennifer asked you about it & now you need to listen to her a little better… ” And then I’d get back on the bike. When I got to the bottom of this, I was so happy.
Bev – This was all during the descent?
Yes! The descent was scary. No other descent was as bad as that. There were ones that were bigger, but nothing compared to that.
John – So early in the trip too!
Owen – When we got to Tonto Basin, [another leg of the trip – Apache, AZ to Tonto Basin, AZ] sometimes other bike tours come through there… they love bikers. Sometimes I got a better [motel] discount as a biker than being a retired Marine or AAA! [laughs].
Anyways, when we got to Tonto Basin, that was probably my hardest ride: up and down scary hills, 105 degrees, 84 miles. This had to be a top 5 difficult day for the trip. When I arrived, the motel manager said to me “Yea, this is a popular place for people to quit the route! [laughter].
John– How mentally tough is it when you have those long days, adverse weather, sore muscles… What did you do to keep yourself going?
I think the worst day was when I had an 89 mile day. We had already booked the motel & I knew where we were going. I was at mile 19, and I was out of gas. And I was like… how am I going to do 60+ more miles. So I have to start playing [mental] games with myself: “OK, If I can go 10 miles, maybe I can have lunch…” If I go 10 more miles, maybe I can have chocolate milk. So I kept setting shorter goals, to get there.
Or I’d grab one of those sugar blocks out of my shirt pocket if I get 5 more miles. I kept loading myself up with more fuel to get there, to get myself moving. Then mentally, I’d think, when I get there, I can take a bath or shower. I get to have dinner with Sara & her friend. Whatever… but I had to play mental games. There were 5 days like that where I really had to work, mentally.
Some days it was just a joy, but there’s definitely going to be, like anything, bad days.
John – What required maintenance first: The bike, your body or your mind?
Owen – Oh… the body. I learned a third of the way into the trip, that I can’t come in hangry. It was important to eat something, like 20 miles out. I can’t come in grumpy to Sara. It was a team. And she’s unloaded the car… she’s doing her part. I can’t come in all grumpy. So, I would try to do some things, to take care of me, before I got there, so I was mentally prepared to deal with it.
When I got there I would physically try to replenish. It was usually around food, getting cleaned up, icing my legs. Using that HyperVolt massage gun. That was my routine that I needed.
John– How soon did the HyperVolt pay for itself? [laughs]
Owen – Yep… I think my sister in law might try and steal it out of the house. May have to check her bag before she leaves [laughs].
Bev – Our youngest took our Hyperice back to school with him, we ended up buying a new one! Love those things!
Owen – I had a routine for equipment & the bike too. Laundry, charging stuff up, tires, chain. It doesn’t sound like much but it adds up… like an hour and a half a day. I had to have a process.
John– You logged a lot of miles in Texas. What was your impression of the Lone Star State? What was the local vibe?
Owen– Well, I think it’s natural for anybody, when they haven’t been somewhere to come up with these mental pictures, that might be fair or unfair, of where they’re going. I would say that all these states, not that I disliked any of them, that their stock price went up to me by going through them and meeting the people.
So the people, across all states… I never felt unsafe nor had a problem. Everyone was always there to help me…. And sometimes I would call them “Angels.” People often came out and gave me a lot of extra help. I’d say I had between 5 and 10 angels. People in general would always be willing to talk to you.
Now… I have chatty Cathy’s disease [laughter] and I’m not afraid to talk to whoever.
Anyways, for me, Texas…I would say, without being too political, it wasn’t really until we got to Austin that I saw Biden signs. Everything through rural Texas was pro Trump. All the towns were having their elections. So every little town would have their signs; John for treasurer, Bev for Mayor on the main corner. It was really cool to see that… and then they’d have Trump signs.
The Bible Belt…
In Texas you also see all these churches. I wasn’t familiar with the Bible Belt. The towns also had patterns: there’s a Post Office… that’s a nice building, there’s a library… generally a half descent building. And there’s a church that sometimes looks like the Taj Mahal relative to everything else. I saw a lot more churches going through Texas, all the way to Florida… the Bible Belt, right?
Everyone was friendly to me in Texas. They’re militant in that everyone follows the rules. If they’re supposed to wear masks, they’ll wear them. Unlike Florida that didn’t wear them, in some situations.
And Texas doesn’t seem like…like here in California if someone didn’t have a mask on someone might take it upon themselves to ask you to put a mask on… to self police it. I didn’t see that in Texas. Texas didn’t seem to worry about it. They just kind of get on with life. I liked that about them.
They are always helpful. They do carry some guns. I was very surprised. I’m just not used to that. That’s just me and my upbringing.
It was the same in Arizona too. I mean, a town of 40 people and some 80 year dude sitting down to breakfast & he’s got a pistol. Who’s he going to shoot? … there’s no one here. I wanted to say to the guy “why do you carry that pistol?” but I wouldn’t do that. I said to my friend John, who was with me, we’re not saying we’re from California, not saying who we voted for…[Instead] We’re leading with “I’m a retired Marine” [laughter].
I really enjoyed Texas and it’s the people I enjoyed the most.
John – One of your goals was to meet 5 or 10 people a day. You mentioned the “Angels” that you met along the way. What people left the biggest impressions on you?
Owen – I really had some negatives and positives.
Some of the Angels, I would describe them, really went out of their way to help me.
I met a husband and wife team, outside of Austin. They had worked for the U.N. on International refugee camps. The husband is retired. He’s like me, but maybe 5 years older. They went out of their way to help me. I ended up spending the night at their house, outside Austin. And these are really special people….super nice.
When I got a picture with the long horns [journal], it was this guy’s brother. They brought me to that farm. Got a good picture with the Long Horns. They wanted me to feed them… I was a little bit [hesitant] [laughter]. They were really down to earth people that I really enjoyed.
When I came into St Augustine [Florida], there was some guy riding in front of me. He wasn’t riding an expensive road bike, but he was riding pretty hard. Anyways, I catch up to him and say “Hey Buddy, where are you going?” He said he’s heading to 17th and something. I told him I’m not from these parts, but I’m crossing the country and I’m going to finish at the beach in St Augustine. He said “I always wanted to do that!” I told him I’m just following this map and he said, “ No, I’ll take you… Let me take you.” I said, OK Buddy. This guy went out of his way. Just a neat guy, out for a bike ride. It was just really cool. And this guy had a good day. He texted me afterwards… wanted the picture I took with him. I made sure Sara took a picture of he & I… It was just super cool. You meet people like that. They go out of their way to help. For me, those are the special people.
More good advice during the trip…
Owen – When I got to Austin, Tx I was kind of limping. Austin is more than half the trip. I went to Lance Amstrong’s bike store and asked if someone could see me and look over my bike.
I spent a half hour with this guy. They put my bike on a stationary stand & he watched me pedal. I told him I had adjusted the metal clip in on my left shoe, but not the right shoe. Also, I told him I wasn’t clipping in with both feet when I rode.
He told me that my shoes needed to be symmetric, otherwise you’re going to sit funny and start having problems. I was already having problems.
Then he lowered my seat & pushed it back a little, then he watched me some more.
Owen – Then I asked him: How would you approach hills and rollers? I told him that I tried to accelerate… almost yell ATTACK when I get to the top of a hill. I’m going after that hill because I want to get up the next hill. To go as fast as I can down this hill to get up the next hill. I’m going in the highest gear & I don’t want to use my low gears. Because if I go in my low gears… it’s a sign of weakness [laughter]. That means I have to climb…and I don’t want to climb.
So, he looks at me and he says “And you came from California to here… riding like that? No wonder your legs hurt. You can’t do that. Sure, if you go to the gym for an hour, you can accelerate. But if you’re out riding for six hours you need to have active recovery… pedal slowly, keep it in the lower gears. You don’t need to sprint up hills.
So, I was doing three things wrong:
1. I didn’t train enough, so my legs were hurting.
2. I wasn’t clipping in properly and I really wasn’t fitted properly.
3. My method of pedaling… thinking I’m in a race not a journey, was hurting me, not helping.
That $35 was some of the best money I’ve ever spent. Sometimes paying for good help is really worth it.
Bev – Why didn’t you clip in originally?
Owen – My virtual support team was heckling me [asking] “Owen, why aren’t you clipping in?” I was using running shoes until I got to Arizona. Most people wouldn’t have done that. It’s more efficient to clip in, you get more pull up etc… I just hadn’t done it. I thought I might fall. People fall when they’re not used to clipping in. I had the shoes and I knew I needed to. Finally, I clipped in, around Phoenix, but then my left leg started to bug me. I climbed over the highest pass with just one shoe clipped in. So, all those mountains I climbed, I never had two shoes clipped in. Once I got through Austin, I was much stronger, better and more in touch with what I was supposed to do.
John -What would you do differently if you took the trip again?
Owen – If it was someone new trying to do the trip:
I would definitely go with support. It gives you a lot better chance of success.
I would train way better. And, if time allowed, I would do a little practice. Maybe a weekend away, to test out all your gear. Then you could figure out what you need…do that interview process…
After your weekend trip you could say “OK what do I need an extra camp stool for?” Why do I have a Winter coat & Fall coat…[laughter].
I would do the preparation differently. And, in the preparation I would learn a lot more about nutrition and what works for me. Better to learn beforehand than when you’re out in the middle of the desert.
I think if I were to do it again, I would have some friends with me, that were similar in skill set & mind set of what we’re trying to do. Riding with 3-4 people would take out some of the monotony, tame the dog issues etc… It would make it more fun.
I think I got a short-timers attitude about 12 days out from the end. I just wanted to get there.
But the last three days I toned down and it was fun again.
John– Has the trip changed the way you’ll “eat elephants” from this point forward?
Owen – Well, I do think the idea of one pedal at a time, one bite at a time is key to anything you do in life. Vegas would have given me 50-50 odds at best. I think a lot of people didn’t think I could do it. By doing it… and for my daughter as well, by putting yourself in a tough situation and then accomplishing the mission, you’re teaching the kids that sometimes it’s good to put yourself out there, stretch a little and you’ll survive. Doing this bike trip taught me a lot about myself. I can accomplish it if I just put one pedal in front of the other…