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In 2012, a Donegal man 'cheated death' racing across America. Two years later, he tried again

Joe Barr chats about his new book ‘Going the Distance’.

Joe Barr pictured in hospital.
Joe Barr pictured in hospital.

ON THE SURFACE, ‘Going the Distance’ is a book about cycling, but it is also a story about fathers and sons.

Joe Barr describes the relationship with his dad as “terrible” and it is easy to see why.

One typical passage from the book, written in collaboration with BBC journalist Robin Sheeran, which recalls Barr’s childhood, reads: “If I coughed at night he’d come into my room and beat me. It got so bad that he came in one night and put a pillow over my face to stop me coughing, holding it there for so long that I was fighting to breathe.”

“It’s only really in my later years that I realised how much that relationship moulded everything that transpired from it,” Barr tells The42. “I look at it now and the sense of escape or freedom, or whatever way you want to position that, it set the route and journey.

“The bicycle happened to be the thing that was there at that time and obviously, that was the love that I had to follow. But it did mould the whole journey really because it moulded me as a person as well and the personal struggles I’ve had just to live my own life on two feet.”

In contrast with his dad, Barr’s mum Elizabeth, who passed away in 2018, was a pillar of strength that could always be depended on as a source of unconditional love.

“My mother was a gentlewoman,” he says. “Not only her children but people who interacted with her wanted to spend time with her because she was just so easy to be around. I don’t believe I would have survived the whole thing without her. It’s not as though she had any big impact on it but what she had was a drip-feed of consistency there all the time. No matter what was going wrong, [her home] was a place you could regroup and not be judged.”

‘Going the Distance’ is also a story of a person trying to find contentment. Barr’s pure love for cycling starts as a hobby but soon develops into an obsession and eventually, a profession.    

“The most significant memory I have was back then, the breakfast cereal packages would have images on the back and they came with plastic toys on the inside. 

“There was a period where the cereal boxes used to have images of the Peloton of the Tour de France. They were all just black-lined outlines and you had to colour them all in. You got the bag out of the cardboard box and you made it into a picture.

“I used to take them out to hide them as I’d get another box and picture to colour in. So there was a really big relationship between that period of colouring those pictures in and wanting to be what these guys were with all the colours and bikes.

“I think as well at that age, you don’t think about supercars. You think about what’s relevant and it’s your bike around the corner. And back then, people were still moving around on bicycles in rural Ireland. So it was a cool thing to have.”

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Life as a professional cyclist, however, did not turn out to be as glamorous as it was often portrayed as being. Though Barr had a successful career, winning countless races and hundreds of medals, including a bronze at the Commonwealth Games, going without regular income was tough.

“Last week, I read an article about someone at the top end who’s having to make a decision over whether he can keep going or not because he just doesn’t have the income coming in. I think cycling has changed drastically from my period in mainstream racing to what it is right now. But I think an awful lot of it behind the scenes is still very much the same.

“There’s a nice glossy cover on it and if you’re world tour and looking at the Tour de France, I’m sure it’s all fine and everybody’s doing very well. But I think when you drop down the layers and someone really wanted to take a look at it, they would uncover that there’s an awful lot of [issues] and not as many luxuries as you would think.

“Certainly, when you’re trying to make your way and you’re not one of the superstars, it’s a very difficult existence, because you really need to be away from home for so long and you need to be able to fund that. There’s no real other life to it. I take my hat off to the top guys that have wives and families and how they manage that because if you really look at what they do in detail, it’s an incredibly enclosed life.”

Barr’s book frequently highlights the personal cost of being a top-level cyclist — there is more than one failed relationship along the way.

“I know from my perspective, it was very difficult. When you read through, you see that I’ve had a number [of relationships] that have crashed. Luckily right now, I’m very happy. My partner understands the whole deal.

“It’s still not easy, don’t get me wrong. It needs to be a very compatible relationship to work. How guys do it in the long term, when they’re away for months on end, it must be incredibly difficult and stressful.”

By the end of his career in professional cycling, Barr felt burnt out and had lost that childlike, pure love of cycling, only to subsequently rediscover it.

“When I was coming close to the end, fortunately, the era of large sportives had arrived. I found a place where I was able to ride my bike but not be under the stresses of having to perform to the absolute where I needed to be the best I could be, otherwise, there was a consequence to that. So I found a way back to be able to ride [my bike] enjoyably.

“All the other logistics and financial things and stresses that went with that, all that went away.”

Barr still had to make ends meet though, and at the age of 40, he entered into the working world outside of sport for the first time.

“It was a big shock. The 9-5, I found it incredibly boring. Again, it took a period of time to settle into whatever that looked like. There came a point of acceptance where you go: ‘This is all it looks like.’ And it’s probably not going to improve a lot, so it’s up to me to try to adapt to it and that was the process that I went through.”

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If the Donegal native’s extraordinary life was a movie, which his story very much could be, the inciting incident might be the moment he hears his baby son Ross’ cancer diagnosis. What follows is a hugely moving account of this traumatic period and serves as the basis for everything that transpired thereafter.

“It brought everything in me to account really. It was the most frightening time because I generally was in a world where I was nothing except a facilitator. I wasn’t really in control of anything and that’s a very daunting and vulnerable place to be.

“And also, you dreaded every day what the potential outcome of it was going to be. It taught me an awful lot of things. I put an awful lot of things down in my life. I’d come to realise how much superficial baggage I had accumulated. There just came a point whenever the process of that journey happened over a period of time, day by day, I just systematically seemed to say ‘I don’t really need that anymore, I’m not dealing with that anymore, that’s going here and this is going here.’

“I’ll always remember the consultant telling me: ‘When this is all over, you’ll know who your true friends are.’ He never told me a truer statement because when it was all over, I had it narrowed down to who that was. I look back on the process now when it was ongoing of how people just slowly dropped off because there’s nothing in it for them. It narrows it down to the people who are coming because they genuinely cared about you and they were asking about it, even though it was limited what they could ask because they didn’t understand what to ask.

“Then when we did the Race Around Ireland thing, which was a simple fundraising process for the charity, it was nothing more than that. I wanted to contribute back to the system that had helped me so much to try to help them overcome all the things that I could see because I was passing through it.

“I then realised that if I really did this properly and looked at it correctly, maybe I could be okay at this, maybe this is the place for me. 

“I never imagined for one second in my life when I was in the hospital with my son that in two years’ time, he was going to be still alive and I was going to be on the start line of Race Across America — I would have just laughed. I thought that was never going to happen, but it did. And it progressed on.

“And from that really bad period with my son to get to Race Across America and then what happened in it in ’12 where I nearly lost my own life, it’s nearly unimaginable that that sequence of events was going to happen.”

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He continues: “I’m the person who lived through it and there are times I think back now on how I even got to Race Across America in 2012 — all the people that sponsored it and the crew who came and just volunteered to do it.

“And whenever I got sick on it, that was another big pillar or shift in your life — I realised I had a huge decision to make in terms of: ‘Is this the time to stop? Or do I find a way?’

“So effectively, my resilience got challenged, and that’s when I started to realise that these life lessons were coming from the bike and there was an opportunity for me to try to take what I was learning on the bike and apply it to my own life to try to make my own life a bit better.

“So that’s where I started to realise that the world of ultra-cycling was bringing an awful lot of parallels to life and I could use those. That’s some of the stuff I’ve tried to pass on now through coaching and stuff we do with other people, to say: ‘This is what happened. Take a look at that. And this is what you can do.’ So it’s become a great education for me and I have the opportunity now to pass that on.”

The dream of competing in the Race Across America — a gruelling ultra-distance road cycling race from the west coast to the east coast of the US, approximately 3,000 miles in length, which has no stages and takes the quickest competitors just over a week to complete — soon became a nightmare.

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Recalling his first attempt in 2012, Barr admits he “cheated death”. The athlete almost died from altitude sickness on Wolf Creek Pass. Had the circumstances been even slightly different, he would no longer be with us.

“It took a fair while to overcome what actually happened in the Rockies because altitude sickness is a really severe situation to be in — if you’ve got the wrong type or are at a point where it’s very difficult to overcome, or are in the wrong place location-wise where you can actually get no [swift] medical help because of its stealth you don’t even realise it’s happening. There are two types and I was drowning inside. And with the other one, your brain swells. So I had the type where I was drowning, but it had got to such a level because of the dehydration of the desert.

“In Race Across America, you’re in the desert in Arizona in extreme heat, in the high 40s — for two days and two nights. Then you go straight to the Great Divide and the top of the Rockies, and that’s 12,000 feet, so it takes a huge impact on your body. And that’s what happened.

“But there’s a hospital up there at about 9,000 feet, and luckily for me, it was there. The issue they had — a simple but important one, was when you get to a certain level of the condition I had, the next deck of that is coronary. Believe it or not, they were able to treat the altitude sickness but they wouldn’t have been able to treat the outcome of what that would have been. They were going to have to fly me to Denver and to do that, you’ve got to go on the helicopter and after that happens, it’s over. So you’re trapped where you are. You’re at the beck and call of what they can do and for me, I was one of the lucky ones, they were able to stick with it and I started to come around again. It was a close call. I certainly wouldn’t like to be back there again, that’s for sure.”

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This traumatic incident left Barr considering his future in the sport. Nevertheless, he ultimately decided to continue, showing remarkable resilience to complete the Race Across America in 2014, winning the coveted Finisher’s medal in the process. In 2019, he returned, once again finishing the course and winning his category to boot.

“It was incredible,” Barr said of finishing the event in 2014 and 2019. “The Race Across America in its entirety as an event is a lifetime in its own right. But when you get to the finish line of Race Across America, so few solo riders had made it across. I was ecstatic that firstly, we had overcome it and managed to do it. I’m not saying it was pretty, but I managed to get across it. I think I finished 10th overall and I was second in the category I was in, it was a very good result in general.

“Most people would be jumping up and down but I knew that there was a lot more [significance to the achievement] because of how difficult it was. It got to the finish but we still made a huge amount of mistakes and a lot of it was a struggle. But I had great confidence at the finish because I knew there was more, I could even be better than I was.

“But getting over Wolf Creek, we knew as a team the fear of the climb and a fear of what the potential outcome could be. I had a big moment when I got to the top of it and I didn’t hang on too long up there until I got my vest out because it’s a long way from the top at 12,000 and the nature of the course, it still takes an awfully long time to get below 5,000 feet. You’ve another big climb and probably the best part of 200-250 miles before you get down below 5,000 feet again.

“So if you’ve got any kind of issue up there, it’s a very difficult process to manage, to get yourself out of it. And we did, but we also spent a lot of time managing it. But we felt it was more important to manage and get to the finish than it was to worry too much about the time.

“But it was certainly an ecstatic moment and one of the main people behind it was my friend Len Forkas, who was a big influence in getting me back in 2014. And the fact that it was riding for his children’s charity and the kids were all there at the finish was incredible.

“I didn’t know the kids were going to be there with their parents. I think the story we told in 2014 as we went across America was also very unique in that every night when I was stopping to get clothes or whatever, I had a portfolio of 12 children. I didn’t know who they were or where they were located. We rang them up and it was all recorded and we profiled the charities. So that was a huge backdrop to the whole 2014 Race Across America.”

This image again epitomises ‘Going the Distance’ — it is and isn’t about cycling. 

“It’s overcoming obstacles,” Barr adds. “When I ride in ultra-racing, you’re not going to get confronted with any bigger obstacles than that and they’re all relatable to life.”

It all comes back to the little boy who tried to justify his mother’s love and overcome his father’s hate. Cycling has always been a means of escape, a passage into a better life and it will continue to be for the foreseeable future despite Barr having turned 62 last June.

“Next year, we’re going back to Race Across America again for the fourth time. And obviously, we’ll defend the category that we won in 2019. And you never know, maybe it might be possible to break the record with the crossing of it in my category.”

So does the veteran adventurer ever envisage a time when he will stop competing entirely?

“It’s absolutely on a wind-down,” Barr says. “But we’ve still things that we can do and we know we can do and we’ll be doing our best to try to achieve them.”

‘Going the Distance’ by Joe Barr is published by Gill Books. More info here.

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Paul Fennessy

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