By Kris Capps Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) – Bicyclist Chris Figureida has an important message to share with young people, and he has pedaled more than 40,000 miles over the past 11 years to deliver it.
The 36-year-old athlete found a way to combine his love of athleticism with philanthropy. As an ambassador for the American Heart Association, he bicycles across the country, and sometimes the world, and visits with students along the way. He talks about the importance of good health and exercise. But perhaps even more important, he describes how critical thinking can change a life. It changed his.
Figureida grew up in California. To escape a dysfunctional family, he focused on sports.
“What did I build from that? Eventually, I realized I wanted to be an athlete,” he said. “The hard part was figuring out how to do that.”
So he traveled the planet, thinking he would like to become a professional mountain climber. But he soon discovered he would “have to risk a lot more than I was willing to risk.” Instead, he focused on adventure and endurance.
“I have a master’s degree in suffering,” he said. “I can suffer better than anybody.”
During those global travels, he visited a refugee camp in Kenya and was inspired by the selflessness of the aid workers there. Figureida began researching the germ of an idea.
“Harvard put out a study in 2006 that showed the current generation of kids under 18 will be the first not to outlive their parents,” he said. “All these kids who are growing up will have a 50 percent obesity rate by the year 2030. They will not live past their 60s or 70s and their parents will live into their 80s. It’s going to cost the economy hundreds of billions of dollars.”
With heart disease and children in mind, he wrote a 20-page business plan that centered around him riding his bicycle cross-country. He didn’t own a bicycle at the time. That was 11 years and 40,000 miles ago. What is different about his bicycle journey and the 2,000 other people who bicycle cross-country every year is that he guarantees his schedule.
“I collected a lot of data on myself so I could accurately predict my schedule,” he said. “I know how long it takes me to change a tire, to pedal up a hill with a wind, downhill with a wind. I turned this into a science and into a business.”
During his first cross-country trip under the American Heart Association banner, he met with more than 120 state officials, spoke with 7,000 school kids, all while riding 3,800 miles in 51 days of travel, he said. He kept to his schedule, despite snow, a deadly tornado and oppressive humidity along the way.
Three years later, he added his first love of mountain climbing and has since bicycled in Argentina to climb Aconcogua, the highest mountain in the western and southern hemisphere. He also bicycled to Alaska to climb Denali, the highest point in North America. Then he bicycled home.
“I eventually became the mountain climber I wanted to be,” he said.
On this trip, he is bicycling from Deadhorse to San Diego. In the Interior, he spoke with students at Ladd Elementary School, Wood River Elementary School and teens at the Nenana Learning Center.
Rotary Club, an international service organization, has become his safety net and he often stays with members of Rotary during his travels. In Fairbanks, College Rotary hosted him.