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Times of the Islands Magazine

73 Miles for 73 Years: Dedicated cyclist celebrates birthday with arduous but ‘glorious’ ride

Jan 24, 2021 02:33PM ● By FRANCESCA BLOCK

At 74 years of age, Annette Pacyga likes to start almost every morning in her Sanibel Island home with the same routine: She hops out of bed at 5 or 6 o’clock and makes a cup of coffee to go along with half a bagel and cream cheese. After that quick breakfast, she suits up in her favorite biking shirt and shorts, the kind she jokes “look like you’ve been put in sausage or something”—but are absolutely crucial for staying comfortable during her rides. Pacyga chooses one of her three bicycles and hits the road. 

Leaving her West Rocks neighborhood, she goes “investigating.” Pacyga starts on a normal route to some favorite spots, such as the Sanibel Lighthouse at the end of Periwinkle Way, or J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. She then takes a turn into a few off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods, explores back roads and rides through some hidden pathways. About 25 to 30 miles later, she makes her way home to get ready for the events of the day. 

Every day on the bike feels a little bit different, she says. Pacyga speaks of days having that all-too-relatable feeling of “I’ve just got to get through this.” Other days, when the sun is shining and it’s just the right temperature outside, she thinks: “I could ride forever.”

After eight years and more than 50,000 miles biked throughout Sanibel and Captiva islands, Pacyga is basically a Sanibel expert. “I know every nook and cranny in Sanibel,” she says proudly. “I could tell you all the new houses being built and how far along they are.” 

Rain or shine, Sanibel residents and visitors are sure to see Pacyga riding her bike at least six days a week. On her “rest” day, Pacyga is in her home gym—spending 45 minutes on her spinning bike, another 45 minutes on the elliptical, and half an hour on the weight machine. 

Exercise has always been an integral part of Pacyga’s life. Originally from northwest Indiana, she learned the importance of fitness during her long career as a registered nurse and home health aide. “I can see a big difference between myself at the age of 74, who exercises all the time, compared to somebody who is 74 and never does” Pacyga says. “I’ve got a saying,” she adds jokingly: “I’m going to die healthy.” 

Not only does exercise boost Pacyga’s physical health, it benefits her mental health, too. So much so that Pacyga never misses an opportunity to stay active. On a family vacation in Hawaii, Pacyga recalls running up and down the stairs of her hotel for exercise during a torrential downpour. “I just can’t sit still!” she remarks with a laugh. 

Although Pacyga has always loved exercise, she did not fall in love with biking until coming to Sanibel. When Pacyga and her husband, Dan, first moved to the island, she was mesmerized by its natural beauty. Her curiosity moved her to hop on a bike and explore Sanibel’s wonders for the first time.

Pacyga did not reach her current level of biking expertise overnight. On her first trip, she rode from her new house to Tarpon Bay Road and back home—totaling about only 6 miles—and remembers thinking, “Wow, that’s fantastic!” Instantly, she was hooked. 

She continued exploring new areas each time she went for a ride, biking through the refuge or to Captiva. After getting a speedometer on her bike to track her mileage and speed, Pacyga’s competitive fire kicked into full gear: “I started challenging myself as far as how fast I could go.”

Through a gradual process, fueled by her diligence, natural curiosity and a little bit of guilt, Pacyga worked her way up to where she is today. “Now,” she notes, “I bike 25 to 30 miles a day and think nothing of it.”

Last year, in celebration of her upcoming 73rd birthday on Dec. 4, 2019, Pacyga set her biggest challenge yet: biking 73 miles in one day, each mile to celebrate each year of her life. She heard about the idea through her friends in the Sanibel Bike Club, which meets weekly to go on rides to locations throughout Sanibel and Captiva. (Or, as Pacyga likes to say kiddingly: “They ride to eat.”)

Once the challenge was set, and she’d invited at least 25 friends to join her, Pacyga was committed. Although she bikes daily, nervousness started creeping into her consciousness. “When you say you’re going to do something,” she states, “you want to make sure you’re going to do it!” 

Determined to follow through on her goal, Pacyga set out with her friend Elyssa to train for the ride. They first biked 50 miles in a day and, the week after that, accomplished 60 miles in a day. Pacyga explains: “We were just trying to prove to ourselves that we could do it.”

As December approached and the date of the ride drew nearer, Pacyga reached out to professionals. They gave her more tips on how to train, how to set a good pace, what snacks to take and the best electrolyte tablets to use for hydration. Reflecting on the importance of electrolytes and refueling during the ride, Pacyga says, “I don’t care how cool it is outside, if you’re riding that far, you’re going to be sweating like a pig.” 

Two days before the event, Pacyga received a special surprise. “My husband said he was going to help my son with something,” she relates, “and he came back and my daughter walked into the house!” Flying in from Colorado, Pacyga’s daughter, Mara, came to bike alongside her mom on the special day. “I think she must have been worried I would have a heart attack or something,” Pacyga says with a laugh. 

Full of joy, memories started to pour in of her wonderful biking experiences with Mara. “My fondest memory of my daughter was when I turned 50,” Pacyga says. “We took our bikes to the Loop in downtown Chicago and we probably rode all the way up to Waukegan” [more than 45 miles]. Having enjoyed beautiful weather and the views of Lake Michigan, the memory instantly brings a smile to Pacyga’s face. “That was probably one of the best days of my life.”

On her birthday, there was a light breeze and the high temperature was to be in the low 70s. Perfect biking weather. With her daughter and friends by her side, Pacyga knew there was nothing holding her back. Starting from Pacyga’s home, the cyclists set off on their adventure. Stopping every 10 miles for water and every 20 miles for snacks, the riders steadily made their way in the direction of Captiva. They biked back through Pacyga’s favorite neighborhoods on Sanibel, then cycled back to Pacyga’s house for a quick lunch break. After refueling on some vegetables and other healthy snacks, they continued to the Sanibel Lighthouse and Dixie Beach. 

As she approached mile 73, with Mara biking alongside her, Pacyga was left speechless. “I wasn’t physically tired,” she explains, citing her training with Elyssa for helping her through the ride, “but mentally, I was like, ‘whoa!’ I didn’t think I could even make dinner that night.” Pacyga and Mara actually surpassed their goal—biking more than 76 miles that day. 

Aside from her excitement and sense of accomplishment for completing the longest bike ride of her life, when she tells what made the day “glorious”—it was the people. Having friends and family with her, Pacyga felt surrounded on the ride by people who she truly loves. “We all support each other,” she says, “and that makes a big difference.”

Now back to her normal routine, Pacyga thinks about the role biking has played in helping shape her identity. She feels “compelled” to get on her bike each morning, not just because she feels a little guilty, but also because of a genuine love for biking. It’s a connection that is difficult to put into words. Pacyga recalls passing by her bikes in the garage and stopping to say to herself, “Wow, I love my bike.” 

“It’s sort of silly to love an inanimate object,” Pacyga says upon reflection, “but it becomes a part of you after a while. And biking—it really is a part of me.”

Francesca Block is a resident of Sanibel Island and a current student at Princeton University, studying journalism, public affairs, international relations and Chinese. 


Annette Pacyga’s Fun Places to Bike on Sanibel:

And a Few of Her Favorite Island Eateries: