ENCINITAS – “How are you going to not do the race after two years of preparation and you’re in Texas with a torn quad muscle and you still have 5,000 miles to go?” Paul Solon asked himself.
Solon, who holds world records as an endurance cyclist, was in the midst of the La Corona De Las Americas, a nearly 7,000 mile race from Mexico City, Mexico to Ottawa, Canada and back again.
He did what he needed to do. Gritting his teeth and clenching his fists over the handlebars, Solon kept riding through the pain because to fail would have been catastrophic.
“What I did is I decided that I had to relax my body, and ride in an easy gear and I just had to accept the pain and not fight against it, but just accept it,” he said.
“So what I did is I rode with a torn quad and forced my body to relax, and then it healed, and then I was OK.”
The 59-year-old cyclist admitted that he was still sore from the race, as he spent a few days in North County this week for some rest and to receive physical therapy.
Born in Rapid City, South Dakota, Solon grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He came from a very athletic family of eight kids. Having played quarterback in high school and college, Solon always intended to be a professional football player.
But by his junior year of college, he realized he wasn’t good enough to make it, he said.
Finding the right sport for him to excel at would take time, including a yearlong stint while attending law school before dropping out.
He went down to Mexico to try and become a professional basketball player, but after two weeks, he was cut from the team.
“I wasn’t good enough for basketball,” he said. “So I hitched around Mexico.”
He spent 10 months living with the very poor people of Mexico, learning the language and hitchhiking around. Having just left home and law school, Solon didn’t have any money. He did nothing but learn Spanish, the occasional work on a farm and seeing the sights.
Though he would return to the U.S. and finish law school at the University of California, Berkeley, becoming an assistant U.S. attorney in San Francisco.
It’s been about 14 years since he’s practiced law, and he hasn’t considered himself a lawyer for the past 12 to 13 years. He’s just racing bikes now, he said.
“As the years went by, I became more involved in the American way of life, which is your job is so important; in a way, it defines you as a person in our country, sadly, in my opinion,” he said.
When becoming hooked on triathlons (he was training 20 hours a week all the while he was working 50, 60, 70 hours a week as a lawyer and around the clock when he was in trial.)
After about three years of trying very hard to become a pro triathlete, he realized he wasn’t going to make it.
But he noticed that he was usually winning the bicycling waves of the triathlon races.
“Because I failed in football, and failed in basketball, and failed as a triathlete, I finally realized I had the special talent as a cyclist, especially long distance,” he said. “And I thought that if you have a talent and you don’t use it, then you’re wasting time. So I’m doing my fourth favorite sport,” he said.
Racing bikes for 11 years in Europe, Solon set the world record racing across Europe from North Cape, Norway to Palermo, Sicily.
His start of the race in Mexico City was a rather auspicious one. For the first week, he was ailed with dysentery, which lasted until he got to Arkansas.
And then, he tore his quad after not having started off in the right gear.
On the way back to Mexico City, it wasn’t a physical injury that almost beat him – it was the wind.
“The hardest part of the race was not the quad, although I thought that is was at the time,” Solon said. “And not my Achilles, and not the dysentery, and not the internal discord with the team, but it was the head winds.”
He’s raced in head winds before, he said. Head winds that would last for a day, that is, but in this race they were unforgiving and unrelenting for five days and five nights.
It forced him to get off his bike.
“Psychologically, I started to crack. I got off the bike at midnight outside of Lafayette, Illinois and I told my team, ‘I just got to get off the bike.’”
Physically, he knew he could go on, but psychologically, he didn’t know how he would be able to go on.
And the next day, the wind was gone. And it stayed gone, he said.
“Just at the point where I was unable to see the end of the race, the wind changed, and it died. And then after a day or two, we actually got tail winds and it was crisis ended,” he said.
“If you quit a race because of a muscular injury or something you can understand that better yourself. But if you quit a race because you lack courage and the wind has defeated you, that’s a much harder thing to take. I almost quit because of a head wind.”
For Solon, it isn’t so much a fear of failure that he has – he knows what failure is and what it feels like, he said.
“I’m not afraid of it, but I recognize it,” Solon said. “I know how terrible it feels and it just stays with you and it doesn’t really go away ever until you do some other race and are successful at it…
“I think you can’t really do anything in life if you’re afraid that you’re going to fail. You have to believe that you’re going to prevail,” he said. “It’s an avoidance thing. I want to avoid the horrible bad feeling when I fail, and I’ve failed many times in my life. And felt really bad each time.”
Life as a bicycle racer is a hard life, he said. There are times of doubt – whether he’s doing the right thing, or constantly on the look for sponsors.
A portion of his life is alone, too, he said. Though that doesn’t mean it’s a lonely life.
“If you enjoy spending time with yourself then it’s not lonely at all, it’s invigorating and loving. If you don’t enjoy being by yourself…then it’s a life of anxiety and loneliness.
“But there is a big difference between being alone and being lonely,” Solon said.
As he makes his way back home, Solon will again begin preparing for another endurance race, this one, the Race Across Australia.
To succeed, it’s not necessarily a feeling of joy, though, he said, there is that element of joy, it’s also a big feeling of relief and of gratitude.