HAMPSTEAD -- For Karen Coffey, the most challenging and rewarding experience in life was motherhood.
Or at least it was until last month, when she bicycled the 8,230-foot climb to the peak of Emory Pass in southwest New Mexico.
The ascent, arduous in and of itself, was a microcosm of Coffey's 3,075-mile, coast-to-coast trek from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., a journey she began March 8 and concluded May 3.
A Pinkerton Academy of Derry graduate who served as president of the Derry Chamber of Commerce and now lives and works as a consultant in Hampstead, Coffey made the cycling trip as part of a group organized by WomanTours and used it as a fundraiser for Make-A-Wish New Hampshire.
It also served as a commemoration of her 50th-birthday year and a new challenge to take on after successfully raising her now 23-year-old son, Bryce Unger.
"Once your kids get to a certain age, they don't need you as much, or sometimes don't want you around as much," Coffey said. "So, for me, this decision was really a combination of me turning 50, knowing everything at home was OK and just realizing the timing was good for me in my life.
"Thankfully, I had a job that was willing to give me a two-month sabbatical and be very supportive in doing it."
Before she embarked on her 58-day adventure, Coffey realized the ride offered an opportunity to do something for others, as well as herself.
"In true Karen fashion, it was not to be about her," said Coffey's longtime friend Kathy Brady. "She made the decision to use this as an opportunity to raise money for Make-A-Wish New Hampshire and set a fundraising goal of $15,000."
As of last week, Coffey had accumulated nearly $18,000 for the charity, which she said she chose because of a personal connection: In 2006, the 8-year-old son of a close friend lost a prolonged battle with cancer, but before he died, Make-A-Wish fulfilled his dream of being a cowboy on a working dude ranch.
"I figured, I'm doing this - I'm riding no matter what - but if there is a way to maximize this experience to do some good for a charity, well, I was going to take advantage," Coffey said.
On March 5, Coffey flew to San Diego to meet up with her companions for the upcoming two months. Three days later, she dipped her feet - and a tire of her bike, dubbed "Sweet Ruby" - into the Pacific Ocean and began her trip across the southern tier of the United States.
She chronicled each day in a blog, "Karen's Ride for Wishes" at angryassacrossamerica.com, an exercise that helped distinguish legs of the journey that otherwise might have become monotonous.
"Some of the days were absolutely blurred together, especially because the main goal on a cross-country trip is to move the miles," Coffey said. "America truly does have the 'middle of nowhere,' and I was there three times."
There were days the group traveled 100 miles through flat terrain. Other days, conditions limited them to as few as 39 miles. On average, they pushed 65 miles a day. Along the way, Coffey said, she and her mates battled rain, strong headwinds, steep climbs and much more.
"It was one of the most physically difficult things I've ever done in my life," she said. "I was never athletic, per se, growing up, and I certainly wouldn't categorize myself as an endurance athlete - yet that's exactly what I became on this trip."
It was a journey involving personal discovery, and Coffey liked what she found.
"I learned I'm more mentally tough than I ever would have realized had I not done this," she said. "I learned that no matter how hard it got, that I could finish the ride. It wasn't always pretty, and it wasn't always fast, and some days I would be last ... but I learned I don't always need to be the best, or at the top of my class, which was different for me than what I've been used to my whole life. But it was nonetheless gratifying."
Stepping outside her comfort zone was a huge step, Coffey said.
"When I'm at work, I know I'm good at it, but doing something like this reminds me I can still learn and explore new things and still be challenged," she said. "It was a lot like motherhood in that I experienced new challenges every day. Whether you have a baby, a toddler, a teenager or an adult, you always face unexpected obstacles."
'I did it'
The ride up Emory Pass, Coffey said, was likely the most challenging day of the journey. Fatigued and estimating another three miles up the road, Coffey admitted she contemplated quitting before one of the members of the support team drove down and told her she had but one mile to go.
"To me, that ride up may have been harder than delivering my son. It certainly took longer," she said. "And just like the euphoria of having my son, getting to the top was just a terrific, exhilarating feeling. And, boy, when you achieve something like that, you're just like, 'Holy smokes.' You can't even put that feeling into words."
Coffey said encouragement from friends and family, as well as from her fellow cyclists and the ride support team, was the main reason she was able to push through the trip.
And then there was the last leg of the trip - the one she found most exhilerating.
"I'm an emotional person, so when I rolled into St. Augustine ... I figured I'd be crying the whole way in, but the truth is I couldn't stop smiling." she said. "I was just so happy. I mean, I rode 3,075 miles. Nobody else can pedal for you. I did it."
Back to reality
Perhaps more challenging than the ride itself, Coffey said, has been reacclimating to everyday life.
"For 58 days, I had a set routine of getting up, eating, riding, eating, riding, eating, sleeping," she said. "Reentry was definitely a little difficult, but interesting. I mean, you go though all this physical activity and have this very set routine, and then you come home.
"I never thought I'd say this, but after 58 days, you kind of miss the bike. You get used to the physical activity, so right now I'm just trying to get back into my world a little, and still trying to savor the trip and enjoy the lessons I've learned about myself."