In search of a healthier lifestyle a few years ago, Ashley Howell started picking an extreme fitness goal each year.

This week, the Hays woman is riding in the first of two cross-state bicycle rides in three weeks.

Howell is nearing the end of Biking Across Kansas, taking off from Goessel in Marion County in south-central Kansas early this morning.

On Saturday, she will complete the 502-mile trip on the Missouri border near Louisburg.

After a week of rest, Howell will return to the road on her bicycle for the Big BAM — Biking Across Missouri, a 300-mile bicycle ride in five days.

Howell added Big BAM to her fitness list after her first BAK last year.

She said she could see BAK was “like a family reunion” after her first experience with the event, which began 40 years ago during the bicycle-riding craze of the mid-1970s.

“You get to meet some of the nicest people you will ever know,” Howell said.

Howell grew up on a farm near Marysville and went to college at Cloud County Community College in Concordia, then transferred to Fort Hays State University.

After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in leadership in 2011, Howell entered the work force and one day realized she wasn’t getting as much exercise as she needed.

Two years ago, she decided to change that pattern.

“That first year, my goal was to lose 50 pounds and be able to run a 5K,” said Howell, who lost 30 pounds.

“Then I knew some friends who had done BAK, and I thought it would be a good mental and physical challenge,” she said.

So Howell bought a bicycle in February 2014 and went on several 50-mile trips to train. And she was ready to go by June.

“Some people like to race to the end, but I like to keep a steady pace,” she said.

Getting to see what the host towns have to offer and different scenery are a favorite of Howell’s.

“It’s really flat the first few days,” she said of the start at the Colorado border. “Then you get into the rolling hills, and then eastern Kansas there are steeper hills.”

Howell also has learned to prepare for all kinds of weather.

“The environment changes as you go across the state, and Mother Nature can throw a curveball at you,” she said. “You have to be prepared for it to be 110 degrees or cold and rainy — and be able to deal with it.”

Howell said she enjoys every aspect of the ride, and this year, she will be able to compare notes on weather, terrain and accommodations from two states.

On Monday, she will return to her job at Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas, then leave at the end of the week for Missouri.

“That week will go fast,” she said. “But I’ll be ready to go again (on the 21st). I’m looking forward to it.”