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A Man Got A Bike And Lives Differently

November 25, 2023 6 min read 2 Comments

A Man Got A Bike And Lives Differently

Donnie Seals digging for it on his 386-mile ride from St. Louis to Chicago. Photo by Tim Schmidt.

 

*Beaten up by three heart surgeries in his 40s, Donnie Seals, Sr., made a comeback on a bike.

*The highlight at 69 years old was the ride from St. Louis to Chicago, and  the trek turned into a film, Bike Vessel.

*More excellent photographs by Tim Schmidt at the end of the story.


By Ray Glier

Donnie Seals, 71, pedaled the bike 386 miles in four days with legs that had been used for spare parts in three surgeries on his crummy heart. He rode that 386 miles from St. Louis to Chicago even though a doctor once said to him, “Why are you still alive?”

The man did this epic bike ride, a preposterous bike ride given his heart history, after four years of getting his heart in shape. It was the same heart that stopped beating on an operating room table.

Seals was 69 years old when he made the long ride over Labor Day in 2021. His son, Eric, a filmmaker, rode with him. His son, Donnie, Jr., was part of the crew for the trip.

They turned it into a documentary, Bike Vessel. The film is screening in major cities. I encourage you to check out the film's dynamic website.

Donnie Seals, Sr., is the star of the film because he confronted himself...and won.

“There’s no way I could have envisioned this, especially the type of riding I’m doing,” he said. “My rides average between 35 and 55 (miles). Occasionally, not very often, I will go 60 or 100 (miles)."

Seals lives in the western suburbs of Chicago where the winters are harsh. He rides the bike when it is below 30 degrees and he rides in the snow with a Fat Bike. There has to be more than eight inches of snow on the ground to keep him off the trail of a local arboretum.

In the decent weather months, Donnie averages 500 to 600 miles a month on the bike.

This is the same man who flat-lined during the second of his three heart surgeries when he was just 43 years old. Doctors had to bring him back.

Seals was a go-to networking data specialist for Hitachi and the heart’s common enemies wreaked their havoc: the stress of fixing complex problems every day, smoking, and eating poorly. All had taken their toll.

Yeah, man, why are you still alive?

**

Seals had a throw down with himself when he was 65 years old. Donnie went to hit some tennis balls with his daughter-in-law and he struggled to get the ball back over the net.

“My son showed me the video and it was embarrassing,” said Seals, who was a fairly accomplished high school athlete in South Beloit, Illinois.

What he made from that moodscape of disappointment in tennis is to be cherished.

When he picked up the racquet, it had been 22 years since the first of his three heart surgeries. Seals was on a cocktail of 20 pills, which he would go on and off as side effects presented themselves. He had trouble walking around the block with his wife, Sharon. No wonder Seals couldn’t handle a tennis racquet.

“Rock bottom,” he said after looking at the video of him playing tennis. “I said ‘ok, I can’t keep going down this rabbit hole. I gotta climb my way out’.”

Seals started by getting off some of heart medicines that were stripping away his energy. The pills, he said, had kept him alive, but they also prevented him from getting his heart rate going. Donnie consulted a doctor, of course, but he kept eyeing the meds as a barrier.

A funny thing happened. As he demanded more from his heart, Donnie's heart gave more.

Little by little, his energy crept back up as he shed pills and got in shape....

...with a bike.

Almost from the start of his journey, the bike has been a constant partner. Donnie’s workouts have included flipping super truck tires, but the bike is the true compounding agent. The more he rode, the healthier he got.

The pills were helping keep him alive, but he added up their cost one day six years ago. Seals figured he was spending more on the meds than this Cannondale bike he had his eye on. Sharon encouraged him to buy it.

“I felt really uncomfortable spending $1,000 on a bike,” said the dad who helped raise three kids.

Seals had labored through the heart issues for 20 years, unwilling and unable to fix the heart disease. The bike and his family were magic.

Eric and Donnie Jr., became part of the cycling action. Donnie, Jr., actually came up with the name of the film, Bike Vessel, because arteries and veins are the vessels that carry blood through the body.

Then came the idea for the 386-mile trip along historic Route 66. They started at the Arch in St. Louis and rode four days before finishing triumphantly at the Chicago lakefront.

The trip was broken up into approximately 100 miles Day 1, 80-85 miles Day 2, 111 miles Day 3, and 80-85 miles Day 4.

It did not go smoothly. They rode into a headwind the first day. Worse, they had three flats the first 10 miles. They were stranded on the side of the road until the crew arrived with a tool they needed to get going again.

“Our whole schedule was thrown off and the frustration level was very high,” Seals, Sr., said.

They were on the side of the road standing in waist-high weeds with no place to sit down. Traffic zipped by, but Seals Team became more determined.

“I wasn’t quitting,” he said. “We weren’t quitting. I felt like a boxer who had been knocked down, but all the training prepared us. I remember Eric saying, ‘There’s no way we’re not finishing this ride’.”

It is the theme of Seals’ journey back from heart issues:

Getting back up.

On a glorious Labor Day, September 6, 2021, they rode onto the Chicago lakefront teeming with people out enjoying the holiday.

What was memorable during the trip, except for the early mishaps and finish?

“This may sound strange, but one of the most exhilarating things was the smell of the city, smell of barbecue grills, sounds of traffic, seeing lots of people,” Seals said. “We often talk about the fresh air and smell of the country, but the smell of the city told me we were almost home.”

Home meant he had accomplished something he never thought attainable in his 40s and 50s.

**

There was a revelation that came with his riding regularly and restoring his health. Seals realized the impact his health had on his family.

“To be a caregiver is not an easy thing to do,” he said. “I think the health care giver has it harder than the person who is ill. I didn’t realize the impact I had on my family.”

He started helping them by restructuring his diet. Pork has been gone from his plate for a while now. Alarms go off when sugar starts to creep back in. Seals said the steps with his plant-based-diet are very incremental. He is searching for the food replacement that will get him off the last med.

Seals was off all medication for 18 months. He is on one statin now, 5 milligrams. Amazing.

One other important note about Bike Vessel. Eric Seals wants to make the film an “impact” driver in Black communities. When the film is screened often there are organizers who will get bikes to those in need and preach the recreational and health benefits of riding to those who live in large metropolitan communities.

To everyone, Donnie offers the profound wisdom of somebody who has been on the brink of life and death. It is a simple message you have heard over and over.

“I tell folks to find something they love,” Seals said. “I chose cycling. It’s addicting to me.

“I see these guys riding that are 80 and I’m encouraged by them. I want to ride until I’m 90.”

 

Photo by Tim Schmidt.

Photo by Tim Schmidt.

Photo by Tim Schmidt.

Photo by Tim Schmidt.

Photo by Tim Schmidt.

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2 Responses

Leah Rewolinski
Leah Rewolinski

November 27, 2023

Ray, this has just become my favorite story from you. What a cool comeback.

Janet Ward
Janet Ward

November 25, 2023

What an inspiring story! I just loved it.

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