One day in December, the sun had yet to rise, the temperature was -30 C and Daniel Perry decided to go for a 250-kilometre bike ride down a snow-packed trail in rural Wisconsin, with Ritz crackers and granola for sustenance, wearing turkey-roasting bags on his feet.
Perry is perfectly sane: 30 years old, he is a section bassist with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, an organization he joined at just 22, and he speaks with clarity and patience.
He is mindful: most days, he spends some time sprawled out on his mat, following videos of Yoga With Adrienne on YouTube. He is accustomed to precision and he is not one to shy away from a challenge.
But most people who seek to challenge themselves take on tasks that are more attainable as to-dos on a list: to eat more salad, to call their mother, to do the dishes before they pile up to "let’s do a few now and a few later" levels.
Most people do not drive eight hours southeast to the Tuscobia Trail in Wisconsin in a rented Hyundai Santa Fe, only to emerge and pedal their heart out of their chest for an entire day.
Daniel Perry knows how it sounds. Any extreme endurance athlete is often confronted with two types of questions by non-extreme athletes, including newspaper reporters who happen to fit that criterion: hows and whys.
How did you get started? Why do you enjoy it? How do you get ready? How do you stay motivated? How does it feel to finish a race 99 per cent of the population would not consider starting?
Let’s start with the first how: Perry was raised in Indianapolis, where his father was the principal trumpet in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and where his French-horn-playing mother, who comes from Norway, exposed her kids to skiing and Nordic sports.
‘Winter exists in Indianapolis, but it’s nowhere near a Manitoba winter," Perry said. So when he graduated from Indiana University and was accepted into the WSO, he had a slightly different reaction than most Winnipeg transplants.
"It was fun to come to Manitoba, where it stayed below freezing and the snow stayed on the ground."
A few years after arriving, Perry, who already was an avid fair-weather cyclist and a volunteer bike mechanic, decided to give the foulest weather a try, signing up at a friend’s suggestion for Actif Epica, an icy annual winter ultra race.
He rode from Emerson along the Trans-Canada Trail and ended up at The Forks. "I was hooked."
As much as he enjoyed riding in the summer or spring, Perry found winter racing meditative, much like playing the double bass, an instrument he initially chose to pursue as a child because it was too big to drag with him on vacation.
He later came to appreciate the role it plays in the orchestra. "It’s a collaborative instrument," he says. "It plays a supportive role to a larger concept."
While playing the bass, he must be attuned to every other instrument and to his own. On the bike in the winter, racing for hundreds of kilometres, he gets the rare opportunity to play a solo, and to push his physical and mental capacity to meet the perfection a solo demands.
‘I’m very keen on completing my personal goals," he says. "In some ways, it’s almost therapeutic management to put myself in these situations. It’s like a trauma response. There are a lot of things in our lives that are very difficult and we don’t always have the choice to be in those situations. These challenges are different: I think there’s something liberating and therapeutic about being there by choice."
And then choosing to get through it.
The choice is one requiring commitment: in September, in the lead-up to his race in Wisconsin, Perry began working with cycling coach Nick Bergen, recognizing that, as in his musical pursuits, he could not reach his goals alone.
Bergen plans workouts for Perry six days a week: low-endurance rides, core work, reverse squats, upper-arm training, VO2 max (maximal oxygen consumption) workouts, and more intense interval training designed to raise the upper limits of his heart rate.
"A lot of people can’t finish those workouts," Bergen says. "Daniel always does."
"His mental fortitude is bar none," the coach adds. "He spent his whole life playing music, so this ability to hit the right notes translated to the bicycle. That virtue and devotion to perfection transferred to this intense desire to execute."
But not all orchestra members can do what Perry does. Just ask Meredith Johnson, the WSO’s principal bassist, one of several colleagues — two other bassists, both clarinetists, one of the trombonists — whom Perry, an advocate for active transportation, inspired to commute by bike in winter. (No, Johnson says, he doesn’t carry his bass when he rides; he has one at work.)
‘Nobody else does what Daniel does," Johnson laughs when asked if others race. "That is where Daniel is, at least thus far, a breed apart. I go out and ride 40 or 50 kilometres in the winter, not during a race, mind you. I’m not worried about my time. But when I come home, the first thing I think about is how on earth does he manage 250 kilometres in a competitive environment?"
Johnson points to Perry’s winning his job in the WSO at 22, the result of rigorous work and a "fervor." To audition "is almost like being an athlete. I think Daniel has that singularity of purpose."
The training aside, the dressing routine is in itself an ordeal. Perry squeezes his five-foot-10, 185-pound frame into a pair of padded bike shorts, followed by a merino-wool base layer of upper- and lower-body longjohns (he likes wool because of the sustainability of organic matter, but also because it stays warm when wet and doesn’t smell as badly).
He then puts on a second pair of shorts as wind protection, followed by a pair of ski pants. Onto his cheeks and nose, he applies kinesiology tape to prevent windburn and frostbite.
On his feet, he dons turkey roasting bags between his skin and his socks as a vapour layer; these keep the feet dry and are better than standard bags. Then he puts on wool socks, with toe warmers, followed finally by his boots.
Up top, he wears a windproof black balaclava, a merino neck buff, a thin merino cap, a neon soft-shell jacket, his helmet, light and tinted sunglasses.
On his hands, he wears latex gloves under soft-shell gloves, which he shoves into his pogies — insulated handle-bar mitts. Inside the pogies, he dumps Ritz crackers and Nature Valley granola bars, because they stay edible past freezing.
In Wisconsin, he got dressed in the car, and at 6 a.m., he began the longest winter race of his life on his fat-tired bike. The snow conditions were not great: the powder was fresh and very sticky. "It was a practice in pacing to not get too sweaty," Perry said.
He tried to lower his tire pressure to give himself more traction, but the rear wheel lost too much air. He had to stop to pump. Then, the plastic bags on his feet didn’t properly hold moisture, so his socks got wet. He was already worried about frostbite when the nozzle on his Camelbak water mechanism froze.
"I was in a bit of a situation," he says.
Fortunately, he was along a regularly traversed trail, serviced by gas stations along the way. About 50 kilometres in, the balaclava-clad Perry walked into a roadside shop, wearing an N95 facemask, to drink, eat, change socks and buy new Ziploc bags for his feet. "The cashier did not bat an eye."
From there, it was smoother sailing, aside from a missed checkpoint, which caused Perry some mental and physical fatigue. But he kept riding, averaging 16 km/hr according to his Garmin bike computer. Twenty-one hours after he began, at 3:03 a.m., Perry finished the race, in third place overall out of 167 entrants.
It felt similar to finishing an audition, Perry said. "There’s a big rush of achieving, and the flood of positive feelings of finishing something I’ve worked so hard toward, but at the same time, there’s a sadness to it. To be done with it. Almost a bit of aimlessness, because so much of my focus leading up is looking toward it and not about looking past it.
He went to a hotel nearby and slept in until the afternoon. He got back in the car, drove back to Winnipeg, and arrived at 9 p.m. to his downtown apartment, where he went to sleep again.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.