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Larry Brenize: From Being Hit By a Drunk Driver to Conquering 50 Miles in 50 States

“Enjoy the ride.”

Joker Mag's exclusive interview with Larry Brenize: gravel rider, cancer survivor & inspiration
Credit-Larry Brenize/Joker Mag

Larry Brenize is an Underdog Newsletter subscriber with an inspiring story to tell.

He’s found a way to overcome every hurdle he’s faced.

When an injury ended his running career, he grabbed a bike and took up cycling. After being hit by a drunk driver, Larry switched to gravel racing instead.

And when cancer came knocking, he was ready for that too. Now he’s a 15-year cancer survivor.

At 73 years of age, Larry embodies a spirit of resilience, ambition, and a zest for life that we can all learn from. In his own words: “You are only limited in what you think you can do.”

It was an honor and privilege to interview Larry Brenize about his story so far.

A quote from our interview with Larry Brenize that says: "Don’t be afraid to push through new frontiers. Your body is an amazing thing. You are only limited in what you think you can do."

Do you remember the first time you climbed onto a bike?

I fell in love with cycling the first time I rode my heavier-than-a-rock Trek 540 touring bike. What led up to that was an injury in my running/racing career.

I had qualified for the Boston Marathon and 2 weeks before the race I went to a fun volleyball night. I went up for a slam and somebody came under me and took my feet out from under me.

I tore all the ligaments out of my right foot.

After a botched surgery, I knew my running days were over. I had the Trek 540 down in my basement that somebody bought me and yes, my very first ride on it was the Hanover Cyclists in Hanover, PA — Labor Day Century ride.

I rode the 100-mile Century ride, got lost 2 miles from the finish line, and have been lost on the bike ever since. Yes, I was stiff and sore for a couple of days after that ride but my mental fortitude from running marathons helped me finish that ride. 

Can you take us back to that night in January 2017? What happened and how did the fallout impact your life moving forward?

On Jan 2017 on a 100-mile ride that went into the night on a 50-mile out and back ride, I was hit by a drunk.

He clipped my left side, hitting me with his mirror. He stopped and was so drunk that he could hardly talk. A couple of inches to the right and I wouldn’t be typing this.

This was my second hit as a roadie rider and yes, it really shook me up as I got hit a few years earlier by a guy that hit my left elbow going 55 mph. Of course, he stopped too, and said he had night vision problems. Nothing was broken there either but I now have arthritis in that elbow from that hit.

I knew I had to make a change and started following some gravel riding sites. Easter of 2017 I spent the whole weekend looking at gravel bikes and found on one site that Raleigh was selling bikes directly to customers at a killer deal.

I bought a Raleigh Tamland 1 direct from them. It weighed 25 lbs, had mechanical brakes, and was a great starter bike.

Tell me about your first gravel race (the Pony Express Gravel Dash). What was it like to adjust to this new form of cycling and how did it compare to your past riding experiences?

When I go into something I go into it 150% or not at all.

I did lots of research and asked lots of questions before my first real gravel race the Pony Express Gravel Dash out of Marysville Kansas. It’s small-town America and exactly what you want as a gravel rider.

Shipped my bike direct to the Chamber of Commerce there. She even laminated some cue sheet cards for me. It was extremely dry that year as it hadn’t rained in over 2 months.

On the shake-down ride the day before, around 10 miles in I went to grab my water bottle for a sip and there was a massive amount of dust on it. A new one for me. I now use a bottle bag mounted to the handlebars to prevent that.

I have heard of a few riders getting Giardia from free-range cattle feces dust getting on their bottles. Sometimes you just have to go for it and you do better if you really don’t know what you are doing or getting yourself into. I have been given a pretty strong genetic athletic gift that helps me at times.

Some race directors let you use drop bags and some don’t. Most only allow a gallon size zip lock bag which you put your race number on. This race was gracious enough to allow me to send out a cooler to the rest stop. It’s more than a placebo to me but when I am down and out I know all I have to do is throw some sweet tea in a bottle to get me to the finish line. 

I fell in love with gravel riding after riding down the first B road. A B road in the Midwest or anywhere is a dirt road that has no maintenance on it and is mostly used by farm equipment. Before the race, I did do some research and found out that they have sharp flint rocks there. Because of this, I put a special set of tires on for the race called Kenda Flintridge Pros made specifically for that type of riding.

I saw quite a few people having flats that day but I could just let the bike run and not really worry about the lines I have to take.

Gravel riding is a lot different than roadie riding in that, especially on the downhills, you can’t let your bike get out of control as you can’t stop as quickly as you can on a roadie ride. Also if you hit the rough stuff too fast you are going to go airborne and have no control of your bike.

It does pay to listen closely at the riders meeting of any dangerous spots on the course. Of course, I didn’t hear that and there was a 75 foot drop-off at a spot on the course that I hit way too fast. Lucky for me I was able to lock up both brakes enough to kind of slow me down and made it off of it without crashing.

The Midwest has some hills and this course was just kind of lots of rollers that kind of beat you up some from riding them all day. They had a beer challenge if you could make it up this climb without putting your foot down you won a beer. Coming from PA and my tough mountain climbs, it wasn’t that hard. They actually wanted you to win a beer as they had a beer sponsor.

One of the cool things about riding in the Midwest is you can see for miles and almost all towns have a big water tower so you can see that off in the distance and know you are getting close to the finish line. I remember getting close to bonking before the last rest stop and threw some iced tea in my water bottle that I had in my cooler that they took out to that stop.

So yeah, just put my head down and finished the race. It for sure was a huge adrenaline rush finishing that first gravel race.

Larry Brenize: "You learn from your mistakes and oh are the victories ever so sweet. I won first place at the Cow Pie Classic last year in Michigan as I was the only 70-year-old who finished the long 66-mile course."

Having already completed races across 27 states, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced on your journey so far? 

Some of the challenges to racing gravel is you have to sign up for the events way before they are actually being run.

I remember signing up for a race in Texas in January and race day starting temps were 27 degrees Fahrenheit and no, I bailed on that race. 

Another factor is they don’t cancel gravel races unless it’s extreme weather. That makes it tough to decide what gear to wear as it might be 50 degrees and raining at the start of a ride and 80 degrees and hot towards the end of the ride.

Riding gravel for me is a lot harder than roadie riding as the rough gravel and wet, muddy conditions just seem to stop your bike in its tracks at times. Because of that, I have bonked a few times which I never did while roadie riding. Then you throw in a course that might be partially marked and you have to rely solely on your Garmin and RidewithGPS.

You get it in your head that you only have to ride a certain distance/mileage and then when you see that mileage on your computer it kind of messes with your head some when you don’t see the finish line.

That is when you have to pull out all your mental fortitude put your head down and just crank out one mile at a time. That is also when the finish line feels ever so sweeter when you know you really had to push hard to get there.

Riding in new terrain all the time has its thrills too, but you have to be careful not to ride faster than you can protect yourself. Top that off with you really never know what each race director is going to have at rest stops for food and you probably carry enough food to survive off at your end.

Finally, Covid has kind of thrown a monkey wrench into the system. Before Covid, I could ship my bike anywhere across the USA using FedEx or UPS for under $100. Now it is something like $170. Lucky for me I don’t have to fly much anymore to get to a race.

What inspired you to set the ambitious goal of racing 50 miles in all 50 states? 

In 2018 I did 8 gravel races 8 months in a row in 8 different States. That is when I came up with the idea of doing the 50 States 50 Mile gravel ride/race bucket list.

I was working full-time at the time I started this bucket list. Lots of folks say when I retire I am going to do this and this. My answer is don’t do that. Instead of going on vacation to relax, go on an exercise vacation. Get totally wasted and then go back in to work, show pics, and laugh when they tell you that you are totally crazy.

Looking back on your journey from recovering from an accident to becoming a multi-state gravel racer, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about perseverance and achieving goals? 

That is a tough one.

#1 is just pushing yourself out the door every day to exercise. I still struggle with that one at times. Having a plan on what you want to do and accomplish is key though.

When I decide what gravel race I want to do I go to YouTube to look at some videos of the race and then decide if I want to do it or not. I have joined lots of FB forums and asked questions about the races. I also ask other riders at races about some of their favorite races.

I think planning the races is almost as much fun as doing them. There are all kinds of ways to ride your bike at events. At my end, I am not a racer per se as I like to just enjoy the moment. So if in the middle of the ride I see something I like I stop and take a pic.

I love to take pics of old barns (I come from a farming background) and old churches. It’s all about enjoying the ride/race. You have to figure out what works for you – nutrition and drink-wise – and sometimes that is only by trial and error. Knowing that one day you just might not have it and there is no shame in not finishing a race.

You learn from your mistakes and oh are the victories ever so sweet. I won first place at the Cow Pie Classic last year in Michigan as I was the only 70-year-old who finished the long 66-mile course.

If someone out there is going through a tough time and looking for inspiration, what advice would you give them based on your own experience? 

I kind of have this thought process. Don’t be afraid to push through new frontiers. Your body is an amazing thing. You are only limited in what you think you can do.

Don’t be afraid to push it at times and don’t be afraid of failures.

Back in my randonneuring roadie days when I was riding 200k, 300k, 400k, 600k, and 1200k rides, I had a rider tell me once that you learn more from your failures than your success and I would agree with that.

Finally, always have fun.

On your first Century ride, don’t be so focused on the result that you forget to take pics and have fun. Another thought is lots of folks try and ride as fast as they can when you actually can get into better shape by riding somewhat slower and getting more saddle time in.

Enjoy the ride.

Oh yeah, I kind of forgot this. Buy the best equipment that you can afford. It’s better to buy the better equipment up front than trying to do upgrades later.

I have kept upgrading since 2017. My latest bike is a 2021 Lauf True Grit Weekend Warrior Wireless. I bought a set of carbon wheels for it. It has been a game changer bike for me and helps me enjoy the moment without as hard of an effort on my part. 

How can our readers support you?

15 years ago, I had prostate cancer. A buddy of mine invited me to come out to Colorado to climb Mount Evans. I was hardly on my bike at all.

I decided with God’s help and some great docs, that I could beat that cancer.

So yeah I am a 15-year survivor now and applaud anybody who has beaten cancer.

Here’s a short video clip of that ride as I carried my bike to the top after getting to the parking lot.

I am so grateful for the wonderful close-knit cycling community. I am so humbled and it brings tears to my eyes at times to think of all the wonderful friends I have met, stayed at their homes, and have ridden with on a bike.

I hope I never forget those wonderful memories. 

Editor’s Note: Huge thank you to Larry Brenize for taking the time and sharing so much with us. You are truly an inspiration!

Written By

Division III baseball alum (McDaniel College) and founder of Joker Mag. Sharing underdog stories to inspire the next generation.

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