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Ken Zylstra during his intercontinental bike ride

Riding with Gratitude

Member at: Life Time Savage (Minnesota)

In the middle of a narrow trail 11,000 feet high in the Rockies, endurance cyclist Ken Zylstra came upon a newborn antelope.

“It was just born, still wet,” says Ken, the president of his own service company (and a former Life Time executive), recalling the awe of this brief encounter last summer as he and a small team rode the 2,745-mile Tour Divide from the Canadian border to the Mexican border.

It was one of many transcendent moments on a grueling 27-day ride that crisscrossed the Continental Divide 32 times — moments that punctuated hours and days of hardship and uncertainty.

“We had the opportunity to ride through some of the most majestic and untraveled areas of the Rocky Mountains,” Ken says, reflecting on the unobscured sunrises and sunsets, ever-changing weather, unforgiving terrain, and wild nature.

Ken, then 59, had completed many ultra-distance races — including the notoriously grueling Leadville Trail 100 MTB — some of which were arguably more dangerous because of their remoteness or extreme conditions. Yet the Tour Divide represented the pinnacle of his decades-long cycling career. It had long been on his bucket list, though taking a month off to ride it — let alone train for it — hadn’t seemed feasible.

Then in 2021, life circumstances offered Ken an unexpected summer off. With his family’s support, he prepped for two months, strength training at Life Time in Savage, Minn., and taking Life Time’s on-demand yoga classes at home.

The ride was unsupported — no SAG (support and gear) stops, no crews — so careful planning and constant recalculations were essential. Cafés and grocery stores weren’t reliably open because of the pandemic. When trail conditions slowed the team down, they couldn’t reach planned campsites and lodging. Crossing the Great Divide Basin in southwestern ­Wyoming meant pedaling 300 miles with no opportunities to resupply water or food.

“The Tour Divide was definitely the most difficult,” Ken recalls, comparing it with other rides he’s done. “Physically, mentally, emotionally — day after day.”

Yet, when things felt impossible on the trail, he was able to draw on a deep well of appreciation for this unlikely opportunity (as well as his training and experience) to persevere. “‘Remember, guys, we get to do this,’” he’d remind his team.

“There’s a simplicity on the trail that I’m so drawn to,” Ken explains. “You move forward, you eat, you sleep, you drink, and you try to stay safe, and then you repeat. There’s a solitude, a cleansing, that happens out there that is so pure, that just filters everything in your soul.”

This was excerpted from “Changing Lives” which was published in the July/August 2022 issue of Experience Life.

Jill Patton, FMCHC

Jill Patton, FMCHC, is a Minneapolis-based health writer and functional-medicine certified health coach.

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