Andy Welch found a career through his personal love of cycling. He had no way of knowing it would end up helping to save his life.
The 37-year-old Chicago-area native has spent six years as the bike shop manager at Henrico-based Endorphin Fitness, continuing a path that evolved out of his interest in mountain biking and road cycling, which he picked up when he was in his early 20s.
It was soon after that the former computer programmer said he began battling with depression, keeping his suffering hidden from those around him – including his wife Jenn – for about a decade.
It wasn’t until two years ago that he opened up to his boss, Endorphin founder and CEO Michael Harlow, who suspected something was wrong and called Welch out on it.
“I noticed he seemed sad and not his normal self, so the gears quickly changed to ‘Are you okay?’ and ‘How can I care for you?’ I started asking some questions, and he just broke down,” Harlow said.
“That led to me asking some very pointed questions: ‘Have you hurt yourself?’ ‘Have you considered hurting yourself?’ He was just really honest with me and said, ‘Yeah,’” Harlow recalled. “I asked some more detailed questions about that to find out that he had actually thought through some things, and that led to me saying, ‘We need to get you some help.’”
By that time, Welch’s secret struggle had culminated with a plan to end his own life.
“I had a plan to hang myself, and I had driven into the woods. I still to this day haven’t told my wife where that was,” Welch said while recounting the events of that day in February 2015. Wanting to be found, though not by his wife, he said he parked his car by a road and started walking into the woods – with a rope.
“I got to where I was going to end my story, and I touched my back pocket, where I carry my cellphone. I knew if I went missing, one of the first things they were going to do these days is ping that phone,” he said. “I had a fully charged phone, but I didn’t have it in my pocket. I started walking back to the car, thinking I’ve just got to get my phone and this will all be over.
“In that mile, mile-and-a-half walk back to the car, I had convinced myself that I couldn’t do it, and that I needed to get home and just wait until Jenn got home from work,” he said. “She still didn’t know, and I didn’t tell her.”
Once he opened up to Harlow a week later, there was no turning back, as Welch sought out help with his coworkers’ support, eventually seeing a therapist and realizing he no longer wanted to keep his ordeal a secret.
Welch also decided he wanted to take his cause on the road – literally, as he’s now preparing to do on behalf of a local nonprofit.
An endurance cyclist, he had competed in a number of long-distance, multi-day races, eventually qualifying for the annual Race Across America (RAAM) – a coast-to-coast ultramarathon in which participants typically race for a charity or cause.
It was that last detail that had kept Welch from entering the race in previous years.
“I wanted nothing to do with RAAM, because I wasn’t ready to tell anybody why I wanted to work with a charity,” he said. “At the time, it was going to be a suicide prevention charity.”
Freed from that burden, Welch found a cause to champion: the locally based Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation. The nonprofit is run by David and Grace Gallagher, parents of the late Cameron Gallagher – a local 16-year-old who died from an undiagnosed heart condition after completing a half-marathon in 2014.
The Gallaghers, who Welch had helped as customers at Endorphin, had formed the foundation to fulfill Cameron’s dream of creating a 5K race to raise awareness of teenage depression and mental health. The foundation puts on multiple races and events throughout the year, and Welch said he wanted to help draw attention to its mission of helping people “SpeakUp” about depression and mental illness.
“As I was getting therapy and getting healthier, I said, ‘We’re going to do this,’ and I asked David and Grace if I could do (the race) on behalf of their foundation,” Welch said.
With the foundation signed on and supporting his effort, Welch is set to ride in this year’s RAAM, a 3,000-mile race from California to Maryland that kicks off June 13. Racing in the solo division on behalf of the foundation, Welch is accepting donations through crowdfunding platform Crowdrise, aiming to raise $50,000 for the foundation. As of Thursday afternoon, he had raised just over one-fifth of that goal.
“I want to share my story, and this is a great local charity. This is the Richmond community – this is now my home,” he said. “If we share this story, hopefully it will help somebody find the courage to say something themselves.”
While he’s riding the race solo, with brief stops along the way for sleep and clothes changes, Welch will be by no means alone, pushed along in part by the support he said he’s received both at work and in the community. He said he owes everything to that support, the sport of cycling, his faith, and especially Harlow, who helped him “speak up.”
“I owe buying that first bike; I owe Michael,” he said. ““Having that kind of support, it makes it hard to have a bad day, because even when you’re having one, there’s always somebody there to try to lift you out of it.”
For Harlow, he said what he did for Welch is no different than what he would do for anyone else in a similar state.
“Everyone has stuff,” Harlow said. “Some of it’s visible, some of it’s not. Andy’s was not visible, and he exposed it. And we all care for him just like we do anyone. It’s just he’s now made it something that’s very outward and something that he has really built a whole mission around, which is great.”
A Freeman High School grad and alum of UR, where he graduated from the Robins School of Business with a degree in marketing and business administration, Harlow said Welch’s story is a perfect example of the goal of the foundation’s “SpeakUp” campaign, as well as proof of the power of cycling and community that his business aims to encourage and promote.
“I firmly believe that this sport – and we see it on a regular basis – transforms lives in a lot of different ways,” Harlow said. “People achieve a new mindset, a new wellbeing from the sport, and I think Andy is a living testament to that.”
Editor’s note: This is the latest entry in our Downtime series, which focuses on business people’s pursuits outside the office. If you, a coworker or someone you know around town has an exciting or unique way of passing time off the clock, drop us a line at [email protected] For previous stories from our ongoing Downtime series, click here.