Back in the 1980s, Mel Morris was about to turn 16. He worked all summer before his birthday, saved as much money as possible, completed his driver’s education course, and then made the purchase he’d spent years dreaming about.
He bought a bike.
And not just any bike, but a used, high-end Cannondale. It was his first real road bike, and he dropped $300 on it. “I’m pretty sure my first car cost the same as that bike,” he says. “That was an indicator of what’s to come.”
So while his friends were tinkering with their new cars, Morris – who waited until he was 17 to actually get his driver license – was becoming another kind of road warrior. At 16, he began participating in 100-kilometer and 100-mile bike races throughout the Panhandle. He was good at it, too. A self-described “big kid,” Morris had never been a competitive athlete. He was just a boy who loved being on a bike.
“My granddad built my very first bike from parts,” he says. “I just started riding around the neighborhood. It was my ticket to freedom.”
Morris had a lot of freedom. He grew up in a quiet, older neighborhood near downtown Amarillo, on Cleveland Street, a few blocks east of the Civic Center. His parents worked. When Morris learned to ride his first bike, they gave him limits. First it was the end of the block, staying on the sidewalk. Then he could ride on the street. His radius slowly expanded away from home, and before long, his limits were gone.
“In fourth or fifth grade I started riding across town to the mall,” he says. From Cleveland Street to Westgate Mall is a seven-mile, 40-minute ride one way. It was worth the effort to hang out with his friends. “Those were big days. It wasn’t so much the distance as it was the independence. I didn’t have someone to drop me off at the mall. It was how I lived my life. If it needs to get done I’ll figure out a way to do it.”
One day in junior high, Morris was watching TV and encountered footage of the Race Across America, an iconic annual competition that began in 1982. In it, solo bicyclists literally raced from Huntington Beach, Calif., to Atlantic City over a period of nine or 10 days. Mel was transfixed by the idea. “That was something I could relate to as a kid who rides a bike,” he says. “Watching them go through the desert and over the mountains and crossing the Mississippi –that was a dream I hid in my heart at an early age.”
Once he got the nice road bike, Morris used the 100-mile road races as baby steps toward fulfilling that dream. “I did that through high school,” he says of the races. Then he started college, entered the workforce, and watched adulthood begin to push against the dream. “I got married and had kids and went down the normal path that everyone does.” He started his own landscaping company and, in his words, “got settled into life as most of us live it.”
Mel stopped riding. He began enjoying the drive-thru convenience of fast food. He endured the stress of running a business. “I owned a bike, but it hadn’t seen the road in many years,” he says. Without the massive calorie burn of those hours on the bike, the former “big kid” saw his weight balloon until, in 2009, he hit 250 pounds. Morris decided something needed to change.
Remembering his first love, he started getting up early for a 5 a.m. spin class at Amarillo Town Club every Tuesday and Thursday. “I went in on the back row and tried to survive,” he says. Over the next year, he attended the class faithfully, watched the pounds begin to melt away, and slowly regained his road legs. One week at the gym, he noticed a poster for 24 Hours in the Canyon, a now-iconic local event that had begun in 2007.
“It reminded me of my dream as a kid,” says Morris. “It wasn’t across the country, but if I’m ever going to ride across the country, then 24 hours is the place to start.” He set a goal of getting in shape for the 2011 race and soon found himself rediscovering his passion for endurance races. He rode the 2010 Hotter’N Hell Hundred in Wichita Falls.
A month later, he competed in the Enchanted Circle Century Bike Tour in New Mexico. When June of 2011 rolled around, Morris was ready for the Palo Duro Canyon race – and ended up setting an individual course record of 360 miles over 24 hours.
“That was a huge turning point for me and set me on the track for the course I’m on today,” he says. Before long, Morris was asked to become a cycling instructor at the Town Club, leading others in the same class that had him sweating in the back row a few years earlier.
In the process, he became something else, too – a legitimate, elite, ultra-endurance bicycle racer. In 2012, he finished the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club Colorado Triple Crown, which climbs some of the state’s most epic mountain passes and is considered Colorado’s hardest road cycling series. Morris was the first non-Coloradoan to complete the Triple Crown. He rode the Furnace Creek 508, an original qualifier for the Race Across America. “It starts in Santa Clarita, Calif., and goes through Death Valley and the Mojave Desert and ends in Twentynine Palms,” Morris says. “It’s 508 miles, 11 mountain passes, and 35,000 feet in climbing.” He logged 42 straight hours on the bike during that race. Experts compare the 508 to riding four of the devastating mountain stages of the Tour de France – but back-to-back, without the massages, replenishing meals, and easy night’s sleep between legs.
Then, in 2014, Morris beat his old 24 Hours in the Canyon record, logging 398 miles. In addition to those literal miles, he’d moved thousands of figurative miles away from the stressed, overweight, 250-pounder he used to be. He’d found a purpose. He’d reignited that childhood distance-racing dream.
So in 2015, Morris shut down his landscape contracting business in order to pursue that newfound passion. He became a personal trainer and opened Le Rev Training Center at 4310 S. Western St., a cycling-based gym that offers strength training, running programs, and group fitness in addition to spin classes.
Le Rev is a loose modification of the French word for dream. “It stands for ‘the dream’ and revolutions and starting up,” says Morris. “It’s been my philosophy as an instructor.” Inspired by his own dream, he wanted to help others pursue their dreams as well. “My goal was to inspire others to find a dream they’d given up, or a dream they’d never even considered. I wanted to believe in people. Sometimes that’s all we need, because we don’t believe in ourselves.” He helped running clients get off the couch and finish 5K races. He guided beginner cyclists as they purchased their first bikes, then helped them ramp up to 50- or 100-mile races.
But pushing others toward their dreams came at a personal cost. Morris was teaching multiple classes a day, training individual clients, and working early mornings and late nights. That left little time for the endurance races that had so recently transformed him. “Starting the gym took me out of racing,” he says. His clients and gym members noticed. “They knew my story. With tears in their eyes, they would say, ‘You’re helping me with my dream … but what about your dream?’”
That was a year ago. In early 2016, Morris decided he needed to resume practicing what he was preaching. He looked at the coming season of endurance races in Texas, and picked out a relatively new competition. It was called the No Country for Old Men, a 1,000-mile race named after the Cormac McCarthy novel set along the U.S.-Mexico border. Beginning and ending in Alpine, Texas, the grim course climbs into Big Bend National Park, travels through Marfa and along the La Linda Highway, and includes 41,000 feet of vertical climbing.
The race began in 2014 and is already considered one of the most challenging bicycle races in the U.S. Six solo riders finished that first year, along with several relay teams. The next year, in 2015, only two individuals completed the extremely challenging course.
Morris entered for 2016, and in October, climbed onto his bike at the starting line as one of just three solo riders total. One was from Great Britain. He dropped out 21 hours into the race. Another, from Illinois, covered 400 miles in 29 hours before suffering heat stroke in the 100- to 105-degree Texas temperatures.
That left Morris alone for the last 600 miles of the race. His strategy changed. He was no longer trying to win. He just wanted to finish – to keep from succumbing to the maddening heat. His two crew members, Heather Mitchell and Deana Perdue, kept him hydrated from a follow-vehicle. But it was the encouragement of dozens of friends, family and clients back in Amarillo that truly kept him going. Morris knew they were monitoring his progress via GPS. “I started something, and there were hundreds of people watching for me to cross the finish line. They were supporting me,” he says. They were watching him pursue his dream, and he didn’t want to let them down. “I came to accomplish something, and I knew there would be obstacles.”
Those obstacles were partly physical. Regardless of fitness level, hundreds of miles and dozens of uninterrupted hours on a bike result in significant leg and knee pain. During the entire four-day event, he took only two very brief sleep breaks. But Morris says the biggest challenge was mental. Toward the end, mile after mile, he just wanted to quit. “Everything hurts. Your body is on autopilot. The last 200 miles in that race were just as hard as the first 800.” He describes his emotions like Elizabeth Kübler-Ross described the five stages of grief. There were tears, yes, but there was also rage. “You go through anger. The last one hundred miles were uphill. It was endless climbing, getting done with one hill and then looking up at another. To finally get a descent and it just be a vapor. You see how rough the road is and it just makes you more angry.” He daydreamed about climbing off the bike.
He didn’t stop, though. Morris finished the 1,000-mile race in 94 hours and 58 minutes –only 62 minutes ahead of the 96 hour cut-off. He was the only finisher, and for his effort he received a T-shirt, a hand-made medal, a custom jersey, and something even more valuable: He qualified for the 2017 and 2018 Race Across America, the same coast-to-coast bicycle race he dreamed of as a junior high student.
Morris is planning to compete in the Race Across the West this June as a test-run. “It’s the little brother – the first 900 miles of Race Across America,” he says of the course, which climbs from the California desert into Durango, Colo. “It’ll allow us to be familiar with what’s expected from that race, for our crew and me. It’ll be tough.”
But Mel Morris is prepared for that challenge. He’s pursuing a dream. He’s living the motto he teaches his clients at Le Rev, to be “ridiculously intentional.” He wants them to set lofty, crazy goals. “If we set our goals so high in our lives, [even] if we fail at that, we fail above everyone else’s successes,” he says. “If you’re going to do it, go out and do it beyond your comfort zone.”
There’s nothing comfortable about a 3,000-mile race from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. There’s nothing comfortable about a 1,000-mile race through the badlands of Texas. And there’s really nothing that comfortable about a ride from downtown Amarillo to Westgate Mall.
But Mel Morris doesn’t pedal in pursuit of comfort. He’s pedaling after a dream. And in the summer of 2018, he’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to achieve it.
Mel Morris’s plans for the 2017 Race Across the West and 2018 Race Across America don’t just require him to put in long hours on the bike. It requires a personal sacrifice from his crew members, too. Heather Mitchell and Deana Perdue will be joining him again, but he needs several more team members – and several thousand dollars to cover the logistics of the race. Starting out with this summer’s Race Across the West, he says, “I’ll need medical personnel and a bike mechanic. It’s a huge sacrifice for me to ask. It’s almost a week’s commitment.” He would love for the same team to support him again in 2018, which would involve at least a 10- to 11-day traverse of the United States. “That’s a huge sacrifice of their time. I don’t take that lightly.”
To sponsor Mel Morris, crew for him, or otherwise get involved with planning for Race Across the West and Race Across America, contact Morris through Le Rev Training Center (806-236-4640, firstname.lastname@example.org).
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.