Eating pancakes in Princeton, New Jersey, Ryan Torres considered his predicament: Halfway through a 100-mile run he’d started on a whim, the Wharton School freshman realized he had stress fractures in both feet.
Five days earlier, he’d decided he needed a physical challenge. Not a marathon; he knew he could do that. He pulled up a map and saw that Times Square was just about 100 miles from Locust Walk at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“Why not?” he thought.
Two hours after his last final of his first semester, he was running. He left campus at about 6 p.m., carrying some food and water in his backpack. He set a very ambitious goal of running the 100 miles in one day, and he sailed through the first 50 miles in about 12 hours.
Stopping for those pancakes, though, he had time to access that nagging pain in his feet. He couldn’t really walk, much less run. No way he was making it to Times Square at the same pace.
No way he was stopping either.
“My mantra at that point became: ‘The only reason I’m not going to get to New York is if I die, and I have no intention of dying in New Jersey.’”
BREAKING A BIKING WORLD RECORD
For Torres, now a Wharton sophomore, having no intention of dying in New Jersey has become sort of like a personal motto, adaptable as needed to fit whatever predicament he finds himself in. It helped him pedal from the East to West Coast on a second-hand road bike during his very first summer in the United States. It pushed him to become just the fourth person to swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco Harbor with the butterfly stroke.
And, just this December – during his second winter break at Wharton – it propelled him up the highest volcano in the world, breaking the world record for the highest point ever reached solely on a bicycle. He pedalled 20,626 feet up Ojos del Salados on the Chile-Argentina border.
“I know it sounds cliche in a way, but giving up really is not in my vocabulary. It’s not like an option that goes through my mind,” he says. “I just don’t want to stop.”
FROM BARCELONA TO WHARTON TO THE ATACAMA DESERT
Torres was born and raised in Barcelona. He knew he wanted to study at an American University, so he taught himself to speak English by reading books and watching Hollywood movies. (It’s why his accent sounds very American.) In high school, he was invited to join the national Spanish pentathlon team, and he learned to shoot, run, ride horses, swim, and fence. He also learned to push himself under intense pressure.
He arrived at Wharton last school year with nothing more than his luggage.
“I knew very clearly that when I was 30 or 40 years old, I would be running my own business. So, I wanted to apply to top finance and business programs. What I realized was I could study economics in leading liberal arts universities, but there is only one place where I would get a rigorous, hands-on training in finance and business and that place was Wharton,” he says.
His notion to bike across the United States came because he had secured a summer internship in Silicon Valley after his freshman year and he needed a way to get there. Why fly when you can buy a $200 used road bike off Craigslist? He set off with no support crew and little to no prior biking experience.
He learned about fixing flats and slipped chains along the way. He found help from farmers, truckers, and fellow cyclists he met on the road. He also connected with a biking network that led him to Leo Tenenblat, a Silicon Valley executive and avid cyclist.
Together, the pair wanted to do something big, and what they came up with couldn’t get much bigger: biking 500 miles across the Atacama desert and then up the Ojos del Salado volcano in the Andes mountains. Their journey, dubbed Project Ojos Del Salado (OdS), was sponsored by GoPro and documented to raise awareness for World Bicycle Relief, a nonprofit working to deliver a million bikes to empower five million people in emerging communities by 2025.
He left Philadelphia on December 13, the day after finishing his last Wharton final.
TRAINING AND STUDYING ON THE SEAT OF A BICYCLE
The Atacama desert is the driest nonpolar desert on Earth, some places getting less than a millimeter of rain per year. NASA uses it to test instruments for Mars expeditions and filmmakers use it as a backdrop to simulate conditions on the Red Planet.
Torres and Tenenblat would be biking through the desert in peak summer. No wind, no shade, altitude gradually climbing as they made their way across Chile to the Andes Mountains. They hoped to reach the top of the 22,615-foot volcano – 8,000 feet higher than the highest point in the continental United States, Mount Whitney in California’s Sierra Nevadas. By comparison, Philadelphia is about 46 feet above sea level.
“At that altitude, the lack of oxygen impairs everything. Your brain, the five senses, your heart beats so much faster. It’s horrible. And I would have to bike in that environment,” Torres says.
To mimic those conditions, Torres trained on a stationary bike, pedaling at 35 miles per hour for 60 to 90 seconds to build up the lactic acid in his muscles. Then, he’d slow his pace to about 27 miles per hour and bike for as long as he could. He trained about five hours per day in between his Wharton classes, balancing his iPad on the bike to study.
Torres and Tenenblat started biking on December 14 in Copiapó, Chile, elevation 1,293 feet. They rode 12 hours a day with no support staff and carrying all their own gear, sweat pouring down their backs and faces. They set up camp, slept, woke, and did it all again the next morning. Temperatures topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
On the fourth day, Tenenblat had a medical emergency that meant he would not be able to continue. The pair called for help on their satellite phone, and he was evacuated by a local in a pickup truck.
Torres was about a day’s ride away from the basecamp at the foot of the volcano, elevation about 13,500 feet. He decided to push on alone.
‘I GENUINELY THOUGHT I WAS GONNA DIE’
That first night at basecamp was rough. He woke to a quick, relentless pounding and realized it was his heart racing faster than if he was sprinting. His oxygen level dipped so low he didn’t have the coordination to break off a piece of chocolate to provide much needed energy.
“I genuinely thought I was gonna die,” he says. “But there’s a point, even in high stress, high stakes situations, you have to let your rational mind prevail and make an informed decision with the information that you have available.”
He stood up to make it easier for his heart to get blood to his limbs, and consciously tried to slow the beating. He was able to drink some water and make himself some instant noodles. He decided to stay an extra day at the camp to give himself more time to acclimate to the altitude.
The second day of his ride up the volcano was even worse, the worst of Torres’ life so far.
Cross-winds blew him off his bike. The temperature was dropping, and the sandy ash was ankle deep. He’d push forward for 30 seconds and then have to rest for a minute or two. By about 3:30 p.m., he figured he was making it just 1.5 miles an hour. If he didn’t make it Camp Two by sundown, he’d be in real trouble.
“It was really, really hard to keep going. Being on that mountain fully alone – just imagine going through the hardest day of your life, physically and mentally, and not having anyone to share it with,” he says.
But, as you know, Ryan Torres had no intention of dying in New Jersey – or on the side of some volcano. He pushed ahead.
6,234 METERS OR 20,626 FEET
After that harrowing day, Torres still had a good two days pedaling up the mountain.
To put it in perspective, let’s go back to that 100-mile run from Lotus Walk to Times Square. Mile 1 to mile 25, you feel great, Torres says. Miles 35 to 50 are the worst because you’re suffering – like really suffering – but you’re not even halfway there. After about mile 60, you start seeing the light after the end of the tunnel. Then, what’s the point of giving up?
So, Camp One to Camp Two was the worst day of his life. Camp Two to Camp Three almost as dreadful – high winds, higher altitudes, that deep moonlike dust – but he could start to imagine the finish. He climbed to 19,000 feet that day.
“It was such a dazzling beauty. It’s strangely peaceful to be in that environment. There’s either ash or snow flying in front of you, and it’s completely desolate.”
Camp Three to the finish, then, is just unadulterated grit.
The previous world record for the highest altitude reached solely by bike is 6,234 meters, or 20,453 feet. Torres pedaled to 20,626 feet.
A HIGH ACHIEVER AMONG HIGH ACHIEVERS
People who go to Wharton are high achievers by nature. Torres is a high achiever among high achievers.
“I guess why my story is a bit out of the ordinary is because I’m using the skills that I’m learning at Wharton, and I’m refining them for something that is the polar opposite of, say, securing a job at Goldman Sachs or Bain, which is also impressive,” he says.
To get GoPro to sponsor his trip and make connections at World Bicycle Relief, he used skills learned in his marketing, negotiations, and other Wharton classes. He appreciates the value Wharton puts on experiences and the learning that occurs outside a reading assignment or classroom discussion. He figures that learning to make a decision on the side of a volcano with low oxygen and numb fingers will help him just as much in his entrepreneurial career as learning to make sense of a balance sheet.
“I couldn’t have biked to the top of that volcano if I hadn’t biked across the U.S. I couldn’t have done that, if I hadn’t ran that 100 miles. Doing something that is hard powers you and gives you confidence to do something that is harder,” he says. “These things carry over to the rest of your life. These experiences allow me to see the world in a way that not many people get to see it.”
Now back to those pancakes in New Jersey. The pain in his feet made it clear that he definitely wasn’t making his goal to finish in 24 hours. But, he could muddle through with a power walk. It took him 36 hours to make the last 50 miles.
He arrived at Times Square, took two pictures to mark his achievement, and walked two blocks to The Penn Club of New York.
“Hello. I just ran from our campus, will you give me some shelter?” he asked the barman.
“At that point, I’d been gone for more than two days. They gave me a sandwich with some French fries, and I just laid my head down on the table.”
Instead of dying in New Jersey, he took a bus back to Philadelphia.
Read about Torres’ fundraiser (and make a donation) for World Bicycle Relief here.
Read his GoPro For a Cause spotlight here.
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