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Interview: Hong Kong-born Mendy Avtzon on tackling a six-week charity cycling trip across the US

Written by
Olivia Lai

Hong Kong-born Mendy Avtzon has recently tackled a six-week cycling trip between July 9 and August 22 across America in an effort to raise money for the charity Friendship Circle International which benefits children living with disabilities. Together with four other cyclists, the bike ride took Avtzon from Le La Jolla Beach in San Diego, California to Deal, New Jersey via New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma  Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. It was all done within one and half months. The marathon journey was no easy feat, but certainly not Avtzon’s first. The cyclist, who originally weighed about 135kg, lost an impressive 36kg after pushing and challenging himself by completing seven half marathons and one full marathon within the past two years. We caught up with Avtzon before he heads off to law school in the US about the challenges of the bike trip and tips on motivating yourself on keeping fit.  

What inspired you to hop on the bike and take part in this cycling trip across the US?
This is an organised bike ride arranged by the charity Friendship Circle International annually for the past six years. I had heard about the bike trip from my cousin, who was one of the cyclists four years ago. I had seen what they had accomplished and always thought it was something very cool, but never thought it would be something for me. After a couple of internship opportunities didn't work out due to timing issues, I decided to dive right in despite not even owning a bike two months before the start date. I was intrigued by the challenge it presented, physically and mentally, and was excited about the motivation it would provide me in life should I complete the trip.

What were the biggest challenges and rewards throughout the trip?
The biggest challenges were definitely the mental side of things. The road can sometimes get very boring and cycling 90 miles a day can be tough. But it's the fatigue, mental breakdown and self-confidence that you have to overcome. I remember one day when I was on this one straight road in the Arizona desert for 40 miles. It was a dead straight old highway with no end in sight and absolutely nothing along the side of the road to mark my progress. On other roads I would see things like a house, a bend in the road, a tree, or a gas station etc. and that would help me get down the road until I set my next mark to keep pushing me. This road had none of that. There was also the day coming out of Salt River Canyon that I passed out on my bike and phones didn't have service to call my support crew or 911. I had to muster the strength to go mile by mile and eventually make it to our last day. Our most advanced and experienced cyclists had the hardest time completing some weeks just because on such a trip it's really the mental games and strength that gets you to the finish line and not necessarily your physical capabilities.

The biggest rewards for me is seeing my fellow cyclists and our amazing support crew on the road throughout the day. When you're out there on the road for however many hours it is in middle of nowhere, there's nothing like seeing someone from your team and knowing they're there to give you motivation. It may seem small, but those smiles, comments and honks from our support vehicles. This also extends to all the donations and support I received from friends and family from all over the world, particularly Hong Kong. Nothing like receiving a message or a small donation from someone who's 8,000 miles away and thinking about you. Meeting the children with disabilities and different Friendship Circle chapters around the country were great as well! 

You’ve raised money for pediatric cancer, and this time, for children living with disabilities. How do you pick these causes - are they close to your heart?
Honestly, I didn't pick these causes because they were close to my heart, but they are now since I have gotten involved with them. My involvement in the causes doesn't stop at the fitness events I participate in. My friend and a cousin of mine challenged me to run my first half marathon for children with cancer. At the time, I had just started losing weight for the millionth time and was looking for more motivation to keep me on track. I had known several close family friends who had lost somebody to cancer so I got involved and dedicated my first run to the cause. Since then, I have volunteered at camps for children with cancer and have made many hospital visits throughout the years, including multiple overnight stays in hospitals to relieve families at night. I have come to know the most courageous and inspiring young people and feel like I have gained more than I have given. It has since become the closest cause to my heart and I will be running another marathon in January, dedicating my run to the recovery of a young male cousin.

With Friendship Circle, my friends and family have been involved for years. It's really a great cause and it gives kids and teens who otherwise would have been outcast and shunned from society an opportunity to really thrive and be contributing members of society. I was able to correlate this cause with my obesity. Just like these kids, I wasn't going to let my physical challenge hinder my chance of finishing my bike ride and I was out to prove to all those that doubted my capability of crossing the US. I was the heaviest guy on the trip by at least 65 pounds on each cyclist, but I was the one who cycled every single mile from West Coast to East Coast!

You’re heading off to law school, any plans to continue participating in major marathons or bike trips or is law school going to be marathon itself for you?
Law School is definitely going to be a marathon and a huge challenge in itself, but this physical journey is never over for me! I've lost around 70 pounds to date with a goal of another 35 pounds to go, but as soon as I stop it all comes right back on. I have to keep cycling and keep running. But I hope to complete a triathlon in the near future and the Ironman one day. 

Any advice for people to get fit – particularly when it comes to motivation/keeping yourself going? 
For people looking to get fit, you just have to trust the process! Nothing is going to happen overnight. I've tried all those diets and they usually don't work long term. You have to find something that works for you and something you can see yourself living by for the rest of your life. It's not a diet, it's a lifestyle. You will have your bad days, weeks and sometimes months, but you just got to pick yourself up and take it day by day. Just like on the bike ride I didn't take it as a 3,100-mile trip, I split up into days and then into 20-mile segments. If you look at a goal to lose 100 pounds, that's way too daunting and scary to think about starting. Just start with the first pound and then the second. The biggest lesson from my bike ride is definitely teaching myself that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to.

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