Kiski Area grad sets world record
It was getting dark as Danielle Girdano approached the Santa Monica Pier, but she was determined to finish. So she peddled on, and when she reached the moonlit sandy shores of the California coast, it marked the conclusion of a grueling 23-day 2,451-mile bike ride.
And a new world record.
Girdano, a 1997 Kiski Area graduate who resides near Dallas, set a world record for fastest time to bike across Route 66, which runs from Chicago to Santa Monica. She shattered the old mark, held by Iris Klein of Germany, by 21 days.
She started in Chicago on Sept.18 and ended Oct. 11 riding for the Highway for Health nonprofit organization raising awareness for childhood obesity and bullying.
“I can't explain the amount of emotion I went through,” Girdano said. “It took three or four days to sink in on what I did.”
It's Girdano's second world record. In 2010, she broke the record on the Prairie Spirit Trail, which runs from Canada to North Texas, by three days.
The bike ride was 23 days, but Girdano's journey to the Santa Monica Pier started nearly a decade ago. When Girdano, 38, was in her late 20s, she described herself as “morbidly obese” weighing nearly 400 pounds. She said she smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.
She lost her job at a cigarette company and subsequently was about to lose her health insurance when a trip to see her doctor became a turning point in her life.
“The doctor said, ‘Look, I'm not going to have this conversation again. If you keep going on the path that you are, you're not going to live to see 35,' ” Girdano said. “I think everything was out of whack with my body except I didn't have diabetes. My doctor couldn't believe I didn't have diabetes. When you're in your 20s you don't contemplate death, and to have that kind of thrown in your face is a wake-up call. So I made a choice. All I knew at the time was move more and eat less, so that's what I did.”
Girdano started exercising, learned more about nutrition and started losing weight. She was introduced to a spinning class and eventually found her niche with cycling.
“If you would've told me when I was a smoker and that heavy and that inactive that I would be an athlete with two world records, I would've told you that you slipped and bumped you're head on something hard,” Girdano said. “That wasn't going to be me, but it is me now. I hope I can be a living example that it's possible no matter where you're at or where you're starting from.”
Historic Route 66 spans eight states. Girdano averaged more than 100 miles per day. Some days she was scaling steep mountain ranges, and others she was battling the wake wind of tractor trailers whizzing by at 70 miles per hour 5 feet from her bike on parts of Route 66 that have been turned into interstate. She also said she was at a constant calorie deficiency because she couldn't eat enough to offset the amount of calories she burned per day.
“As beautiful as the mountains are, they never let you rest, especially when you ride them day after day. It was definitely one of the most physically and mentally exhausting things I've ever done,” Girdano said. “When (trucks) pass you, it snaps your back tire. You're upper body has to constantly pull the bike in the opposite direction to keep it upright. We had a couple close calls on the interstate and even on two-lane roads with tractor trailers.”
The ride was dedicated to first responders. Girdano stayed the night at multiple firehouses along the way.
The World Cycling Federation paged Girdano's GPS more than 500 times during her run. She had to pass drug screenings, and her bike was checked on multiple occasions to see if it was legal.
“They couldn't figure out how I was making time this well,” Girdano said. “I was like, ‘Guys I'm not doing anything. I am just a Pittsburgher. I come from Jack Lambert country. You just don't understand.' ”
Girdano is unsure what her next bike ride will be but will go on a speaking-engagement tour next year focusing on nutrition, childhood bullying and health and wellness. She hopes to return to the Pittsburgh area for part of her tour.
Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.