October 7, 2008

‘Almost Anything is Possible’

Hank Darlington ’57 rides bike from California to Boston

In California, Hank Darlington ’57 is known as a retired businessman. In professional circles, he’s known as a consultant on the kitchen and bathroom industry, and as the former owner of The Plumbery.

To other people, he’s known as the septuagenarian who rode his bike across the country.

Darlington made the trip of a lifetime this spring with CrossRoads Cycling Adventures, which plotted out a route that teamed him up with 17 other bicyclists for a cross-country tour, with another eight who would join them just for the Southwest portion.

“I got the idea of riding across America,” explains Darlington, 73, who used his trek to raise money for both Lafayette and the Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association Memorial Scholarship Fund. “I didn’t want to carry all that camping equipment. A hot shower and a glass of wine sounded better to me.”

The route was a grueling one. It took Darlington to the soaring mountain heights of the Rockies and dropped him 14 feet below sea level in the Coachella Valley. It led along lonely stretches of desert in Arizona and New Mexico, and through endless fields of grain in Kansas. It journeyed past cities in Illinois and near the Great Lakes in northeastern Pennsylvania, before finally terminating at the cradle of the Revolution, in Massachusetts. From start to finish, the route covered 3,415 miles, crossed 14 state lines, and involved climbing a total of 90,043 feet over a period of 50 days.

Darlington has always had an athletic side. He had resumed competitive swimming in his late 40s, and when he grew bored with that, he took up running before eventually turning to bicycling. But with a bike tour looming that was literally cross-country in scope, Darlington poured himself into physical fitness. He had six months to get in shape.

His son-in-law, an avid cyclist himself, steered Darlington toward a diet better suited for the sort of long-distance, endurance biking he was putting himself through, with an emphasis on carbohydrates at the start of the day, a mix of carbs and protein after the workout, and energy bars during the ride.

And, of course, there were the bike rides.

Traveling across America, Darlington would find himself riding more than 70 miles on one of the shorter days. To prepare for this sort of daily endurance contest, he joined bike clubs in the area and began going for daily bike rides in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. He likened the experience to riding up College Avenue to McCartney Street.

“Do that for seven miles,” said Darlington. “I worked really hard, and got myself back into the best shape I’ve been in since college. … I became not a great bike rider, but a whole better than I had been.”

Eventually May 8 came, and Darlington went to Manhattan Beach in California, where he joined 24 other determined riders in ceremonially dipping the rear wheels of their bikes into the Pacific Ocean. That first day, they rode 79 miles to Riverside, followed by 84 miles the second day to Indio, and 101 miles to Blythe — and they still hadn’t left California.

Day melted into day, and the cyclists fell into a routine. Every morning they would get up at 5:30 a.m., and eat at 6. By 7 a.m. they would be on the road, and between 4 and 5 p.m. they would reach their next stop, where they would talk about the day’s journey. By 9 p.m., it was lights out and get ready for the next day.

“Every seven to nine days, we got a day off,” Darlington says. “That was almost not enough.”

Day 20 was the first of seven days the group would spend crossing Kansas. (The third rest day was in Abilene, or it would have taken only six days.) It was there, amid what poet Katharine Lee Bates described as “amber waves of grain,” that the enormity of what he was doing hit Darlington.

“It struck me, ‘Hank, you are riding your bike across America!’” he says. “I started thinking of the words to the song ‘America,’ and I thought, ‘You’re actually doing it,’ and I started to cry. Seeing America from a bicycle seat at 15-16 miles per hour is a lot different from barreling down a freeway at 60-70.”

Residents of the Northeast will recall 2009 as one of the wettest summers in memory. Darlington will back that up. He entered Pennsylvania on day 40 of his ride and crossed into New York on day 42. He remembers it raining every day he rode through those states.

“The hard part was weather. Wind in your face makes for a hard ride,” he says. “We rode rain or shine.”

On the last day, Darlington and the others rode the final 20 miles from Burlington, Mass., to Boston. And there, tired and yet excited at the conclusion of the long journey, they came full circle as they dipped the front wheels of their bikes into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Getting to this point took practice, determination, and discipline. These are skills that have served Darlington as an athlete and as a business owner. They are also all skills that he credits Lafayette with helping to instill, from the camaraderie and teamwork at Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and on the swim team, to being a member of the first graduating class to be able to major in business.

“I loved college.  I worked fairly hard but also had a great time: fraternity, friends, sports, and social life,” he says. “It taught me that if you work smart and hard, almost anything is possible.”

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