Jaik Smith’s legs haven’t gotten used to the fact they no longer have to move in circles all day.
It’s been more than two months since he finished a solo bike ride from Seattle to Key West, Florida.
“It’s weird. My body has become a little sore, and I attribute that to not using them as much,” the 35-year-old said.
He was on a journey to raise money for the Livestrong Foundation, which, on a variety of fronts, battles cancer —a disease that has claimed the lives of several people in Smith’s family.
His lower limbs propelled him 4,400 miles in 51 days — accelerating past a skunk with its tail up in Montana and unleashed dogs in Alabama and Mississippi.
A well-wisher in St. Louis warned Smith of sometimes vicious and unchained dogs that roam Southern states — prompting him to buy a can of Mace to supplement his pocketknife. He used neither. “I rode faster. The dogs got worn out,” he said.
His open-air view of America offered learning opportunities he could never experience at the River West office of InnerWorkings — global marketing execution firm — where he is an information technology guy.
For instance: Roadkill in the Northwest smells completely different than roadkill in the South. “Everything up North is dry because of drought, and everything down South is humid so there’s a different smell of decay.”
His carcass log, if he kept one, would include deer, armadillos, raccoons, cats, dogs and a full skeleton of a cow.
To avoid joining the grisly category, concentrating on the road often trumped sightseeing — like when he hit a top speed of 46 mph rolling down a mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
He carved a wide berth past the bison of Yellowstone National Park. And he was left wondering if the bear he saw charging down a Rocky Mountain slope — he again pedaled super hard — was the culprit of a recent mauling that killed a hiker at the park.
His closest calls came along a harrowing stretch in Mississippi, where Smith learned that, “logging trucks don’t move for anything, and there was no shoulder on the road.”
He had 12 flat tires. When a tire rim cracked, Smith — emotion and fatigue colliding — broke down and cried. Then he called his girlfriend, Lindsey Stevens, in Chicago, who offered a far-away shoulder and bucked him up. In fact, he called her every night.
The ritual wouldn’t suffice, though. She intercepted him in Iowa for an impromptu visit. “We missed each other,” he said.
Two tumbles from his bike resulted in only cuts and bruises — best-case scenarios he attributes to a tuck-and-roll maneuver he mastered while riding Chicago’s streets.
The rigors of the ride left Smith a new understanding of the word “sleep.”
He pitched a tent most nights. A meteor shower over a giant hunk of rock known as Devils Tower in Wyoming left him sleepless. He was also humbled by the kindness of strangers who opened their homes — including one guy who smoked his own bacon — a real treat for Smith, who gained 32 pounds in preparation for the trip, and then lost 42 along the way.
He also thought a lot about his girlfriend. She’s 34 and an office manager. And Smith planned to propose to her at the conclusion of his ride.
Because he didn’t want to worry about losing an engagement ring along the route, he bought one when he pedaled into Key West and slipped it on her finger shortly thereafter.
“I did it after dinner on the sidewalk,” he said.
Her answer: “Yes.”
During his journey, Smith raised nearly $4,000 to help fight cancer. His company also held a fundraiser on his behalf.
Cancer affected his name too. Smith, whose birth name is Jacob and for years signed his name “Jake” — changed it to “Jaik” to honor the owner of a Greek restaurant where he worked in high school. The restaurant owner, who died from cancer, endearingly misspelled it this way.
Back in Chicago, an engaged Smith with weird-feeling legs has a new post-bike ride life perspective.
“I feel like I am able to take things at my own pace. I am able to complete them. It’s hard to describe,” he said.