A seasoned triathlete, mountain-biker, marathoner, and long-distance swimmer, Emi Berger, a vivacious 34-year-old veterinarian, said during a recent conversation at The Star that she didn’t think one could train for the 4,000-mile bicycle trip that she and Kevin Harrington had recently made across the United States.
“We’ve each been doing these endurance races for years . . . he’s done Ironman, I’ve done a half-Ironman and four marathons. . . . We had this idea of biking across the country to raise money for causes we supported about a year ago. Kevin wanted to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project; I wanted to raise money for Mentor Connect, a nonprofit organization that helps people overcome eating disorders. But it wasn’t until this past summer that Kevin — he runs a plumbing and heating business in Southampton and had never taken a vacation like this in 30 years — said he was definitely going to do it. I said I’d do it, too, but I’d have to quit my job [as a veterinary hospital associate in Westchester County]. I was living in the city and my lease was up. It seemed like the ideal time.”
Her parents, Phyllis and Bernard, a semiretired dermatologist and an avid triathlete himself, who live in East Hampton, were “very worried” when the news was vouchsafed, “but not surprised. I’m a type A person; I’m always worried about working and having a job and getting money. It was a big step for me to stop working, but I figured I’d never have this opportunity again. My mother was more worried about what might happen along the way, but I’ve always traveled a lot — I went to college in Chicago, to vet school in London. . . .”
“It was a bit like going into the unknown,” she acknowledged in reply to a question. “I didn’t want to injure myself. I’ve had two orthopedic surgeries, on my right knee and right hip, because of running. I didn’t want to get hurt again. That was one of the most important things, apart from finishing and raising money.”
“We began at Montauk — we dipped our back wheels in the Atlantic at Montauk Point on Sept. 23. Our goal was to dip our front wheels in the Pacific in San Diego. . . . The trip took 54 days — we rode for 53 of them, rain or shine, taking one day off, in Austin, Tex. The night before each day’s ride we’d plan our route — the Adventure Cycling organization puts out bike-specific maps for the U.S. We looked at those, and took those routes, for the most part, on country roads. We weren’t on the freeways. We angled down to what they call the southern tier [Jacksonville-San Diego] route through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and then Texas. There’s a saying in Texas, something like, ‘Happiness is seeing El Paso in the rearview mirror.’ It took us 14 days to get through Texas. The roads were horrible, really bumpy, but Austin was fun.”
“Then we went into New Mexico, Arizona, and California. We got to San Diego on Nov. 15. We were in Arizona on Veterans Day. We rode 111.1 miles that day.”
They had averaged 75 miles a day, said Berger, who “was sore in places I didn’t know I could be sore in.”
“We did a lot of long-distance rides in the last week and a half — we were so excited to get there.”
She’d not been to Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arizona, or New Mexico before, she said in answer to a question. “There were mountain passes in the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains that were spectacular, but the most spectacular was the one we rode through between New Mexico and Arizona. When we started our descent, it was almost like riding down a canyon. It was beautiful; the rocks were very stark, reddish brown. It was all hairpin turns. . . .”
As for the weather, “We probably had rain every other day — there was a lot of rain the first 10 days. It was 96 degrees in Austin, but after that it was unseasonably cold — freezing. It was 38 when we woke up in New Mexico and Arizona. Then it would warm up to 50 or 60. But Jim Arnold, a friend of ours who drove with us in Kevin’s RV the whole way, was great. He had brought clothing and he bought us clothing. He can cook too! I’ve never eaten so much in my life! But you needed to. . . . I weighed 125 when I began, and when I finished, though I probably put on a few pounds of muscle in my legs.”
And the people? “For the most part, they were great. Most of them gave us a lot of room, but not everyone wished us well. Some told us to get off the road. I had a drink thrown at me — it was like they got points if they hit me, I guess. But you learn that the most important thing is not to react. I wanted to scream and defend myself, but if I did I might have fallen. It wasn’t worth it.”
She had “only one flat tire the whole way. Kevin had three. That was it, by and large. We slept in the RV, and we’d be up and out every morning at 7. People would see the ‘Wounded Warrior’ sign on the side of the RV and they’d approach us as we were riding along. A man and a woman pulled up and opened up their wallets as we were cycling. Kevin collected over $1,000 for Wounded Warrior just on the ride.” He collected $50,000 in all. She raised $11,000 for Mentor Connect.
“Veterans would come up and would give us $20. One gave us everything he had, which was $3. It was very nice to see that. It restores your faith in humanity.”
While the Wounded Warrior Project was now well known, Mentor Connect’s work was not, said Berger, who, through her ride, was trying to familiarize people with the fact that “up to 4 percent of Americans — mostly women — have an eating disorder of some kind. It’s the number-one psychiatric illness, yet most health insurance companies don’t cover it, which is where Mentor Connect comes in.”
“There’s a stigma attached as to how women should look,” she continued. “We’ve all gone through a period of time when we were concerned about how we looked. Eating disorders are very prevalent among teens. People can manipulate food just as they use alcohol or drugs. I want people to be healthy. You say you remember when Wounded Warrior was just starting out, when Chris Carney made that ride across the country. Raising awareness is everything.”
Asked what would be next for her, Berger, who for the past two years has volunteered at the Iditarod in Alaska — “talk about an athlete, those sled dogs are the most impressive athletes I’ve ever worked with!” — said, with a laugh, “I don’t know what’s going to be my next athletic thing. I don’t even know where I’m going to be for the next year. I do miss being with the animals. I have to get a job and find a place to live. I want to do a marathon in the next year . . . maybe the Marine Corps one in D.C. . . .”
And her parents? Were their worries finally allayed?
“They went from being anxious and a little pessimistic to being overjoyed and so proud,” Berger said with a bright smile. “They did a 180. . . . Not many do this, you know, and by starting where we did we added 1,000 miles to what most do. Usually, people ride from San Diego to Jacksonville, taking advantage of the tailwind. We rode against the wind — that was indisputable.”
“Every few days I’d say to myself, as a motivator, someday I can tell my children or my grandchildren that when I was 34 I biked across America, and I only had one flat.”