For some of us, hearing waves crash against a beach or the sun setting over a perfectly calm lake provides the solitude, the tranquility necessary to recharge our minds and bodies.
Andrew Ernst, on the other hand, finds the same mental peace and physical resurgence while pedaling mile after mile on his bike. It’s his way of refilling his personal energy tank.
The 26-year-old Onalaska man burns a lot of fuel each day, as he’s a recent Medical College of Wisconsin graduate who this week began his first year of residency at Gundersen Health System. Oh, by the way, he and his wife, Carmen, are expecting their first child within the next week.
Life, in a word, is hectic.
That’s why Ernst, a 2013 Onalaska High School grad who earned an under graduate from the University of Wisconsin before attending medical school in Milwaukee, loves to jump on his bike and take early-morning rides to work, or whenever possible, longer — as in 100 mile — treks.
“I would say it is relaxing, for sure. The ability to go out and be completely on your own, sometimes I leave very early, as in 4 or 5 a.m., and watch the sun rise,” said Ernst, who has done more than 50 such 100-mile or century rides. “It is so quiet and kind of an escape from medical school and other things on your mind.”
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Ironically, a virus that turned into a worldwide pandemic — COVID 19 — provided Ernst some unexpected free time to do more cycling than he ever imagined.
“I would say last year, because of the pandemic, I was gifted a lot of free time. I should have been traveling the U.S. for interviews in 20 cities,” Ernst said of securing a place to do his residency. “All of them were switched to online interviews. They don’t take nearly as long, so I had a lot of free time.”
Time to really test himself, both mentally and physically, like never before. You have to understand this is young man who wanted to celebrate summer solstice last year, so he left Milwaukee at 3 a.m. and biked around Lake Michigan to Muskegon, Ill., some 300 miles, just because, well, he could.
What better way to experience the sunrise and sunset, right?
However, one such adventure, it turns out, may have been a once-in-a-lifetime ride for Ernst.
It took place on Oct. 5, 2020, but it’s worth reliving again, and perhaps again. If you’re Ernst, it will be relived every year, and not just because of the fact he biked 530 miles in 24 hours, but the underlying reason he did it.
“Earlier in the year I had done a 300-mile ride on summer solstice, biking from Milwaukee to Muskego. I like to do adventure type things, so a friend of mine reached out, and asked if I wanted to do something bigger, or more,” Ernst said.
“He said he would be more than happy to drive a support vehicle and come up with a route. He had ridden his bike across the U.S. It took him a month and a half, so he said he had the planning stuff down.”
Ernst, who has completed more than 50 triathlons with his brother, Konrad — yes, the two-time All-American wrestler for UW-La Crosse – had a heart-wrenching cause driving him to pedal 500 miles in 24 hours.
His cousin, Alec Catherwood, a Marine, was killed in Afghanistan at age 19 in 2010. To honor Alec’s memory, his parents had fundraised for years in order to build Darkhorse Lodge, a retreat built in east Tennessee to address the mental health and reduce the suicide rate among veterans.
By establishing a GoFundMe page — which raised more than $3,000 — Andrew could bring financial help and further awareness to Darkhorse back in October of 2020, as well as into the future.
Fundraising for good causes has no deadline.
“Once I learned I was having some free time in the fall, I wanted to do something in 24 hours. I wanted to have a cause rather than doing it for myself. … It couldn’t be all about me,” Ernst said.
“On Oct. 5 (2020), I did the ride. The following week was the 10-year anniversary of Alec’s death and the start of Darkhorse Lodge, so I thought it would be the perfect thing to bring attention to such a great cause.”
After less than a month of planning, the trio of Andrew, his father, Paul, and longtime friend Peter Diotte, were on their to Guernsey, Wyoming, where the trip would begin at midnight, Oct. 5, 2020. Guernsey was selected for several reasons, including its flat terrain and the fact it was due west of Omaha, Nebraska, where Ernst would finish his ride.
“I am pretty obsessive about mapping, using Strava, Google maps. I spent hours and hours looking across the West and Midwest.
I wanted to do 500 miles in 24 hours, that was the goal,” Ernst said.
“The plan was to not get off the bike a single time. For one, Nebraska is a very flat place. I didn’t want to be climbing hills.”
The route was flat, rural and even a bit chilly at times, and Andrew held true to the goal, not getting off his bike even while consuming some 8,000 to 10,000 calories and 4.5 gallons of liquid. He even kept rolling through bathroom breaks.
“Putting on a sweatshirt and taking it off, it wasn’t the easiest thing,” Ernst said. “And drinking, even going to the bathroom, I didn’t run into issues.
“My legs never got to that point (of being tired). At the end, my adrenaline was going stronger at hour 24 than it was before. My stomach was not feeling particularly well as it was having trouble processing 8,000 to 10,000 calories in a day. Your stomach shuts down and doesn’t want to process that anymore, so you have to keep forcing food down.”
One thing, however, made him stop at mile 380.
“The road quality was pretty good, but I did have one flat tire. That is the one time I had to get off the bike and it set me back,” Ernst said. “The goal was to complete 24 hours without getting off. I was off for less than five minutes.”
Ernst said he felt just as strong mentally as he did physically despite a late change in the route the last 100 miles because of a strong headwind. He was averaging 23.5 mph before rerouting, and wound up averaging more than 20 miles per hour over the 24-hour span.
Mentally, he never switched gears, always remaining strong.
“When I do these sorts of things, I disassociate from time. Looking back on it, it kind of blows my mind I was able to sit on a bike for 24 hours when I can’t sit on a couch for one or two hours. The goal that I had and had a mission to do it,” Ernst said.
“I don’t think I got bored a single time. Because I was doing it for Alec, I was thinking about him a lot. And I was doing a lot of math as to calories I was consuming and liquid I could take in.”
In fact, Ernst said he felt an even bigger sense of accomplishment for his father and friend, who drove 20 mph for 24 straight hours in a support vehicle.
“I know my dad and my friend Peter were sure excited to finish. I kind of expected to finish. It was a little bit of relief when I was done for all of us,” Ernst said. “It was a long time to be awake. I felt that excitement through the whole thing, and knowing I set my mind to it I knew I was going to do this thing.”
So what’s next?
Andrew will spend a year at Gundersen where he will be working in physical medicine and rehabilitation, then three more years, likely at Stanford Medical Center at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
He knows there is still a lot of ground to cover before he becomes a physician specializing in PM & R — physical medicine and rehabilitation.
“Helping people recover from traumatic injury, stroke, spinal cord injury, or people affected by cancer is what I want to do,” Ernst said. “That career will mesh well with me.”
And his biking adventures, while scaled back, have already helped him, Ernst says.
“I feel like the resilience that I have gained through cycling, I have applied throughout my medical schooling and career,” Ernst said. “I am able to sit down and stay busy for a long time. I can sit there and easily focus.”
However, he won’t be focused on topping a 530-mile, 24-hour ride.
“This is it. I am satisfied. I don’t need to one-up this thing. When people always look for the next big thing or the next bigger thing, you can injure yourself,” Ernst said. “I’m satisfied staying healthy and fit and having fun with it, and balancing that with other aspects of my life.”
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org