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“I am so tired,” thought Michelle Morton as she biked through a fifth hour of the torrential Texas hurricane that was soaking her, her bike, and her spirit. But it was Morton’s last day of an 11-day, 978.51-mile bike ride across Texas, from El Paso to Deweyville. There was no way she was going to stop now.
Morton, a 35-year-old two-time Ironman finisher, is also an ultrasound technologist in Houston, one of the hardest-hit areas of the country by the COVID-19 pandemic. And although getting an ultrasound doesn’t sound like it would be related to surviving one of the deadliest viruses in the world, it can actually be the difference between life and death.
“A lot of COVID-19 patients get blood clots in their lungs,” Morton said. “If one is suspected, I have to go into a patient’s room and take an ultrasound of their neck, chest, arms, and legs to image the clot.”
Doing ultrasounds, she has no choice but to interact closely with patients on a daily basis, and seeing the ravaging effects of COVID in her community is one of the reasons Morton knew she had to make the most of her health this year.
After working in what Morton calls her “space suit” (i.e. the protective suit she wears when working with COVID-19 patients) for weeks on end and having to quarantine after being potentially exposed to an infected patient (Morton never contracted the illness), she knew she needed a break for her own sanity.
When her goal race of 70.3 Waco was canceled, Morton had no idea how she’d channel her competitive drive. She relied on training and races to provide that rush of endorphins. Then, an idea struck her.
Ride across Texas. Self-supported. Why not?
“Vanessa Foerster made an Instagram post,” Morton said. “And it basically said ‘What can you do to regain control in this uncontrollable year?’”
Something in that message ignited a fire in Morton, who then texted her coach Ellen Wexler and said, “I’m gonna ride my bike across Texas because I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Let’s do it.”
Morton trained for 15 weeks by doing consecutive long rides Thursday through Sunday, and shorter rides on the other days.
And then on Oct. 18, she began pedaling. Her parents, boyfriend, and dog would drive ahead to her destination and restock her with food and water at the end of each long, arduous day. For the most part, though, Morton rarely saw any other souls—on bikes or otherwise. She averaged about 90 miles per day and, thankfully, most of Texas is flat, so she was able to keep her energy levels in check without much climbing. Much of Morton’s ride was your standard “just keep pedaling,” but not all of it was as easy as that.
“The worst thing happened on day four,” Morton said. “Not only were the headwinds so bad that I could barely hit eight miles per hour going downhill, but a wire wrapped around my derailleur and pulled off my bike chain. I was stuck in my hardest gears for the entire ride after trying to fix that.”
Morton faced plenty of challenges: getting chased by a wild dog, being out of water for four hours due to a miscommunication with her family, and undergoing questioning by U.S. Border Patrol as she biked along the dividing line between the U.S. and México.
But all the while, Morton thought about achieving her goal and kept the metronomic rhythm of her pedals churning. Left, right. Left, right. For 978 miles.
As the rain pelted down, Morton’s end was finally in sight—she was less than 10 miles from her goal of cycling across the country’s second-largest state. She just needed to get to Deweyville.
Mother Nature, though, wasn’t going to make it easy. Hurricane Zeta was rolling in, and it was moving fast. Morton was not even aware that a hurricane was on the way, much less a Category 2 storm with up to 110 mph winds.
“I woke up on the final day and it was just pouring rain,” she said. “I had 93 miles to ride. I bought trash bags, latex gloves, and clear construction goggles from Walmart as my rain gear.”
“I know I was getting some looks as I biked along,” she laughed.
The makeshift all-weather garb lasted just long enough to get this triathlete to her personal finish line. Drenched to the bone, but wearing her thousand-watt smile, Morton clamped down on her brakes at 8:30 p.m. in Deweyville, Texas on Oct. 28. She had done it: a nearly 1,000-mile ride across the Lone Star State.
Since finishing, Morton understandably took some time away from the saddle, but she quickly returned to her job as an essential worker. The memories and feeling of accomplishment will be with her as she keeps going and sorts out what finish line is next.
“This year taught me to stop waiting for the perfect moment to pursue your dreams,” she said. “Nothing is for certain. So if there’s something you want to do, go and do it – don’t wait.”