The mountains of Praiano, Italy, tumble spectacularlyinto the Mediterranean Sea. If you look closely on any given day, you might seea tall tattooed woman jogging the 2,000 stone steps that go almost verticallyup those cliffs. It’s like a scene from Rocky: Juliana Buhring, 34, is theunderdog, outsider, and rebel, working to win the distinction of fastest femaleultradistance cyclist on earth.
Training this hard and this long is about a relationshipwith pain: facing it, pushing through it, leaving it in the dust. It’s safe tosay Buhring knows how to do all that. Her lessons started early, when she wasborn into one of the most infamous cults of the time, the Children of God. Thegroup, which later changed its name to The Family International and at its peakhad thousands of members (including a young Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan),was started in the 1960s by David Berg, an ex-pastor who espoused free sex. Thewomen were sent to bars to go “flirty fishing” and seduce new recruits, andchildren were encouraged to be sexual. (Responding to accusations of childabuse, the Family has acknowledged that from the late 1970s to the mid-1980sthe group “wasn’t as safe an environment for children and young teens as itshould have been.”)
Early on Buhring was separated from her family: Herfather was off working closely with Berg, and the leaders scattered her 17siblings among the cult’s numerous communes around the world. “I had justturned four when I heard our group’s green car start up,” she says. “I ran to thewindow and saw my mom getting in with my brother and sister, and thought, Wait!I raced to the front door, but they were pulling out of the gate. I remember mymom waving to me out of the window, crying. I was distraught. I thought theywere going on a shopping trip. I didn’t understand they weren’t coming back.”
Buhring saw one sister occasionally, but otherwise shewas on her own, moving from country to country and living in communes with 20or 30 kids. “We often just slept on mattresses spread across the floor and werecared for by random adults,” she says. “A lot of them were very violent. We gotbeatings, hard labor, constant ‘spankings’ with things like coat hangers andcricket bats. They’d even duct-tape our mouths shut.”
A self-described defiant child, Buhring first thoughtabout escaping at 13. She’d even sneak away at night to make friends outside ofthe commune. But it took hearing that one of her half sisters had died of adrug overdose to give her the push she needed to leave for good. “By then I was23,” Buhring says. “We were in Uganda, and the leaders were happy to see mego.” She got a job in Kampala, and later moved to England and decided to tellher story. The memoir Not Without My Sister, which she wrote with two of hersiblings, exposes the sexual abuse and neglect they suffered and became abest-seller in the U.K. They also started a charity to support other youngpeople leaving extreme religious groups.
Then, in 2009, Buhring reconnected on Facebook with anadventure guide named Hendri Coetzee. They’d first met in Uganda, where they’dhad a short, intense affair, but this time they couldn’t let go. “There was nota day when we didn’t chat, Skype, or call,” recalls Buhring. “We finallyreached a point where we were like, ‘Let’s give this a go. There’s somethinghappening here.’” They decided to meet up for New Year’s 2011 in Uganda.Buhring booked her ticket and counted the days, as Coetzee kayaked in theCongo. But on December 8 she logged on to Facebook to see her feed flooded withtributes to him. A crocodile had lunged out of the river and dragged himunderwater to his death. His body has never been found.
Despite all that she’d been through, losing Coetzee “wasthe one blow I didn’t want to come up from,” Buhring says. Reckless with grief,she signed up for a race to cycle around the world to raise money and awarenessfor her charity, which had merged with the Safe Passage Foundation. She had notraining, no teammates—she’d be on the road completely alone. Everyone told hershe was insane. “This wasn’t about being strong,” she says. “It was aboutescaping.” On July 23, 2012, after working with a coach for only six months,she took off from Naples, never expecting to make it back. At times she wasmiserable. She rode through a cyclone in India “covered in mud and human dung—Iwas sick, constantly wet, and mobbed by men,” she says. “But it never occurredto me, Oh, you could just stop. I’m too proud.”
And in those 144 days of punishing cycling over 18,000miles, something unexpected happened. Buhring, who had always felt so alone inlife, found herself forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, and they camethrough. “People were amazing,” she says. “I stopped feeling like everyone hadit out for me.” By the time she pedaled around the globe—the journey shedescribes in her new book, This Road I Ride, out in May—she knew she had tokeep going. “I had been such a stunted child in a tiny world; I just wanted tomake up for all of that lost time,” she says. “I wanted to do everything.”
She’s certainly on her way. In 2013 she became the onlywoman to attempt the first transcontinental race from London to Istanbul andfinished ninth overall. The next year she took first place for women in theTrans Am Bike Race, although she needed a wheelchair to board her flight home.(“I was f—ing winning that race,” she says.) “The last three days,” says hercoach, ultradistance rider Billy Rice, “she went without sleep. That’s huge.She is the most determined person I’ve ever met.”
So far Buhring has raised more than $20,000 for SafePassage: The money will cover things like travel for those trying to leavecults and college tuition to help start a new life. “They need advice on how toset up a bank account, pay rent—things you don’t learn when you’re growing upin a cult,” she says. She’d also like to erase the stigma that “ex-kids” aredamaged: “Many are ashamed about their pasts, but I’ve seen people who come outsuperstrong.”
As she hunkers down, dead set on smashing a new record inthe Race Across America in June, Buhring pauses to consider her own toughhistory. “Hendri would often say, ‘The strongest metals have gone through thehottest fires.’ And I now know that’s true,” she says. “When you think youcan’t go any further, you always can.”
Helen Rumbelow is a feature writer at The Times inLondon.
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