The mountains of Praiano, Italy, tumble spectacularly into the Mediterranean Sea. If you look closely on any given day, you might see a tall tattooed woman jogging the 2,000 stone steps that go almost vertically up those cliffs. It’s like a scene from Rocky: Juliana Buhring, 34, is the underdog, outsider, and rebel, working to win the distinction of fastest female ultradistance cyclist on earth.
Training this hard and this long is about a relationship with pain: facing it, pushing through it, leaving it in the dust. It’s safe to say Buhring knows how to do all that. Her lessons started early, when she was born into one of the most infamous cults of the time, the Children of God. The group, which later changed its name to The Family International and at its peak had 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. The women were sent to bars to go “flirty fishing” and seduce new recruits, and children were encouraged to be sexual. (Responding to accusations of child abuse, the Family has acknowledged that from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s the group “wasn’t as safe an environment for children and young teens as it should have been.”)
Early on Buhring was separated from her family: Her father was off working closely with Berg, and the leaders scattered her 17 siblings among the cult’s numerous communes around the world. “I had just turned four when I heard our group’s green car start up,” she says. “I ran to the window 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 my mom waving to me out of the window, crying. I was distraught. I thought they were going on a shopping trip. I didn’t understand they weren’t coming back.”
Buhring saw one sister occasionally, but otherwise she was on her own, moving from country to country and living in communes with 20 or 30 kids. “We often just slept on mattresses spread across the floor and were cared for by random adults,” she says. “A lot of them were very violent. We got beatings, hard labor, constant ‘spankings’ with things like coat hangers and cricket bats. They’d even duct-tape our mouths shut.”
A self-described defiant child, Buhring first thought about escaping at 13. She’d even sneak away at night to make friends outside of the commune. But it took hearing that one of her half sisters had died of a drug overdose to give her the push she needed to leave for good. “By then I was 23,” Buhring says. “We were in Uganda, and the leaders were happy to see me go.” She got a job in Kampala, and later moved to England and decided to tell her story. The memoir Not Without My Sister, which she wrote with two of her siblings, exposes the sexual abuse and neglect they suffered and became a best-seller in the U.K. They also started a charity to support other young people leaving extreme religious groups.
Then, in 2009, Buhring reconnected on Facebook with an adventure guide named Hendri Coetzee. They’d first met in Uganda, where they’d had a short, intense affair, but this time they couldn’t let go. “There was not a day when we didn’t chat, Skype, or call,” recalls Buhring. “We finally reached a point where we were like, ‘Let’s give this a go. There’s something happening 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 the Congo. But on December 8 she logged on to Facebook to see her feed flooded with tributes to him. A crocodile had lunged out of the river and dragged him underwater to his death. His body has never been found.
Despite all that she’d been through, losing Coetzee “was the 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 awareness for her charity, which had merged with the Safe Passage Foundation. She had no training, no teammates—she’d be on the road completely alone. Everyone told her she was insane. “This wasn’t about being strong,” she says. “It was about escaping.” 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 was miserable. She rode through a cyclone in India “covered in mud and human dung—I was sick, constantly wet, and mobbed by men,” she says. “But it never occurred to me, Oh, you could just stop. I’m too proud.”
And in those 144 days of punishing cycling over 18,000 miles, something unexpected happened. Buhring, who had always felt so alone in life, found herself forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, and they came through. “People were amazing,” she says. “I stopped feeling like everyone had it out for me.” By the time she pedaled around the globe—the journey she describes in her new book, This Road I Ride, out in May—she knew she had to keep going. “I had been such a stunted child in a tiny world; I just wanted to make 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 only woman to attempt the first transcontinental race from London to Istanbul and finished ninth overall. The next year she took first place for women in the Trans 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 her coach, 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 Safe Passage: The money will cover things like travel for those trying to leave cults and college tuition to help start a new life. “They need advice on how to set up a bank account, pay rent—things you don’t learn when you’re growing up in a cult,” she says. She’d also like to erase the stigma that “ex-kids” are damaged: “Many are ashamed about their pasts, but I’ve seen people who come out superstrong.”
As she hunkers down, dead set on smashing a new record in the Race Across America in June, Buhring pauses to consider her own tough history. “Hendri would often say, ‘The strongest metals have gone through the hottest fires.’ And I now know that’s true,” she says. “When you think you can’t go any further, you always can.”
Helen Rumbelow is a feature writer at The Times in London.