Photo: Imani Lee
With three humungous world records in ultra-cycling to her name, including Highest Annual Mileage Record (86,573.2 miles), Highest Monthly Mileage Record (8,012 miles) and Fastest 100,000 Miles ridden (423 days), ultra-cyclist Amanda Coker is one of the world’s leading ultra-distance cyclists. Yet somehow, despite cycling on average 236 miles every day for 423 days, she’s managed to fly largely under the radar of mainstream and cycling press.
Here’s the story, and my Q&A with Amanda.
Photo: Imani Lee
The backstory to this interview starts in May 2017 when I come across an article on Bicycling.com about an extraordinary young woman’s attempt to beat the HAM’R (Highest Annual Mileage Record) cycling record. Amanda Coker, 24, was cycling an average of 237 miles a day and rising at 4am every day to ride on one of three bikes. At 5am she would set off to ride around the neighbourhood, and at 7am she switched to the local park, Flatwoods, near her home in Tampa, Florida, to complete a 7-mile loop over and over again until the park closed at 8pm.
I was intrigued as to why I hadn’t read anything elsewhere about Amanda and her incredible ultra-cycling challenge. Not to mention in awe of how she could cycle a seemingly monotonous 7-mile loop* over and over – the equivalent of 33.85 laps just to make up her average daily distance of 237 miles.
*Amanda’s father, Ricky, later tells me that being traffic-free was a big upside to Flatwoods, as Amanda had suffered a serious brain injury whilst cycling in 2011 when a car hit her at 50mph. Flatwoods wasn’t the only place she cycled, but it helped the family keep an eye on her, as even in Flatwoods she was being pestered by men while on her bike.
So I contacted Amanda in May 2017 and through her mother, Donna, received a response to say that she would love to answer my questions. Naturally, the only problem was, when? I mean, when you’re rising at 4am and cycling several hundred miles, when do you have the energy for anything else? Although many friends came to ride with Amanda at Flatwoods and she even inspired a community of Flatwoods cyclists, experienced and new, to join her and work their way up to the 100- or even 200-mile club, there’s not much left in the tank when you ride from 5am-8pm.
Once Amanda had smashed the longest yearly distance record ever recorded (male or female) by cycling 86,573.2 miles in 365 days (average speed: 20mph!), she figured why not keep going and attempt to beat the record for quickest time to cycle 100,000 miles. She even snuck in an incredible 402-mile ride which started at midnight. It took Amanda 423 days, averaging 236 miles a day at 20mph, to set her final record.
Photo: Ricky Coker
Given Amanda’s colossal achievement in ultra-cycling, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect sponsorship to come easy. However, corporate sponsorship and UCI sponsorship for a time trial bike so far remains elusive (I’m baffled too – if you can help, message her here). Sadly, sponsorship looks like her next big challenge.
Now that the 4am starts are no more, Amanda’s found time to answer my questions which give a small insight into her mammoth endurance challenge.
If you enjoy the interview, please do share it. Amanda’s an incredible, inspiring young woman and it would be great to see her story shared more widely.
Tell us about your sporting background – were you sporty growing up?
At the age of two my parents signed me up for swim classes, and from then until the age of fourteen I swam on a summer league. During middle school I played club basketball and went on to play for my high school as a freshman. Once entering high school I started running for the cross country and track teams. At the age of fifteen my parents bought me my first road bike so I could compete in triathlons. Alongside racing in triathlons I started racing in road cycling events.
Were you a member of a cycling club before you started your distance challenge?
As a teenager I competed unattached in road cycling races during which time I developed a love for time trials. In 2010 I raced in the Junior National Road Championship coming in sixth place for my age group in the time trial. Not bad for riding a stock aluminium road bike with no aero gear!
You were knocked off your bike and suffered a serious brain injury. Was your cycling distance challenge an important part of your recovery?
I don’t think you ever really recover from a brain injury, however I do believe the endorphins from the cycling challenge were a big factor in the neurological healing. I pushed myself to the limit, mentally and physically, for 423 days. That’s a lot of endorphins!
Where did the idea to beat the yearly distance cycling record come from?
It was mentioned to me back in February 2016. At this point, I was riding up to 100 miles a few times a week which coincided with me competing in a 12-hour race at Bike Sebring in Florida. I rode 245.3 miles in the 12-hour race (Amanda won the event) which allowed me to see what I could do in that period. After that event, a few other cyclists mentioned the Women’s HAM’R record to me, which at the time was 29,603.7 miles and set by Billie Dovey way back in 1939, suggesting I should attempt it. I thought I could push it, but to what extent I wasn’t sure, so I started and soon found a rhythm!
Amanda went on to smash the overall record with a tally of 86,573.2 miles, beating the men’s record by 10,497 miles in the process.
At what point did you decide to go for the 100,000 mile record?
By the time I’d reached my 10th month of the HAM’R attempt, we estimated that by day 365 I would be close to 14,000 miles away from reaching the 100,000 milestone. At that point the record attempt began circulating in my head, although going for the 100,000 mile record was one of the most difficult decisions we had to make throughout the entire 423 days of the challenges. We were all so physically and emotional drained at the end of the year challenge and had put all our focus and energy into finishing the year, that it took tremendous amounts of motivation to continue on. I was facing roughly two more months of riding in 90-100 degree heat, stifling humidity and daily thunderstorms, but after long discussions with my parents we decided to go for it.
You had to get up every day at 4am to cycle for more than a year. Where did your motivation come from?
After my crash, I wasn’t sure that I would ever cycle again (Amanda was left with a broken leg, a back injury that eventually led to surgery, cartilage and tissue damage, deep bone bruising, hip, knee, ankle and foot injuries and a Traumatic Brain Injury). When you’re recovering from your injuries and in and out of surgery, you have a lot of time to think. I missed cycling. I have some horrible memories during this time which I used as motivation during my record attempts. After being sedentary in my recovery, I never took cycling for granted, and these times would go through my mind any time it got tough during my world record attempts.
Your body must be pretty well conditioned to a high volume of cycling – did you ever feel tired and sore?
I’ve had a few injuries and saddle sores which were painful, but the mental strength it takes to cycle over 200 miles a day was a bigger challenge to be honest. But I dug deep and kept pedalling.
Photo: Ricky Coker
You switched between a recumbent bike, time trial and road bike – is there one in particular you preferred riding?
Since all three bikes have different pressure points and work different muscle groups, it all depended on how my body was feeling each day. I didn’t prefer a specific geometry, however my bicycle of choice for when I wanted to go fast was the time trial bike.
When you were cycling for 12-hours a day how do you fit in meals?
Whatever Mom and Dad had made and had ready to go is what I grabbed! Like most cyclists, I got used to eating on the bike.
You cycled loops of the same 7-mile route. Did you get bored of the repetition?
Never! It might be hard to believe, but I enjoyed the Flatwoods loop. If I was riding alone, I would listen to a random mix of music, but I often had company – as you can imagine, I got to know a lot of the Flatwoods community and they would join me for rides. We started an Amanda Coker 100-mile club, and the people living here really helped inspire me.
The fact it was car-free allowed me to concentrate on my cycling. It wasn’t all at Flatwoods, although the majority of my mileage was recorded there.
How did you fuel your mammoth cycles?
My go-to endurance fuel on the bike is Tailwind Nutrition! It’s the best electrolyte drink I’ve ever had.
You cycled through a hurricane, torrential rain and heatwaves. What’s been your most memorable day cycling?
Each time I broke a world record and definitely the day I rode 402 miles!
Did you stay at a consistent pace or mix it up during your rides?
Each day was different depending on the conditions. Maintaining a steady pace was important for keeping my energy levels consistent, but I very rarely passed up a chance to go fast. During the challenge I actually claimed some QOMs (Queen of Mountains) on Strava, which made for a lot of fun rides.
What was your typical weekly mileage?
Between 1,600-2,000 miles per week.
Did you have time for anything other than cycling during those 423 days?
Wake-up, eat, ride, eat, post daily update, sleep, and repeat! Luckily most of my friends are cyclists who frequented the park so I was able to ride and chat with them often.
People who train for ultra-endurance events sometimes find they lose their love of the sport for a time, due to the volume of it. Do you still love cycling?
Absolutely! Since finishing my challenge I’ve continued to maintain my fitness level and am excited to take on new cycling goals.
What’s the furthest you cycled in a day during you challenge?
On day 414 I rode 402 miles! Before then, the farthest I had ridden was 302 miles on day 363, which was actually the first time I had done a 300-miler. During the challenge I wanted to do a 300-miler day, and after completing that goal I was further motivated to go for 400 miles. Believe it or not I had an absolute blast succeeding in both distance goals! For the 402-mile ride I actually started right after midnight and even had a few hours left had I wanted to cycle for the full 24-hours.
You must have sacrificed a lot in the past year. Does this ever weigh on your mind?
Before starting I was only worried about my parents sacrificing a year of their lives and what the effect would be on them once we finished. Luckily, I have amazing parents whom never batted an eye when I presented the record attempt idea to them. They said if I laid out a plan then they’d do their best to make it happen. In the end we all agreed that we were at the best time in our lives to go for the record.