Monday, October 1, 2012

An Unlikely Spokes-man

I finished the entire 75-mile length of the 2012 MS City-to-Shore ride on Saturday. Despite my fears beforehand; despite my thinking that I was ill prepared; despite the notion that at almost 50 years of age, I had no business attempting such an endeavor.

Despite all that, I crossed the finish line with my team, the Spoke Busters, at about 4PM.

It was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

As I blogged about before, I underwent a total attitude change with regard to this ride. All summer long, I kvetched: Am *I* ready? Am *I* fit enough? Do *I* have what it takes?

Until Eileen reminded me: It's not about me. It's not about me, not in the least. It's about people who don't have the physical capacity to climb onto a bike at all. Ever. Or the physical capacity to stand. Or even move from a bed.

So my worries about sore muscles and epic fails were misplaced, on multiple levels.

It was an unforgettable day.

I awoke early, at 5AM. Took the dog for a quick walk, with the full moon still in full view. It was chilly, and the grass shimmered with dew in the milky light.

Eileen was dropping me off at the home of our team captain, and I was travelling to the starting point with her and the other Spoke Busters. Still dark, we arrived at her home, stowed all the bikes onto the cars we would be taking, and were off. I hugged Eileen tightly and said that I'd see her at the finish line.

We arrived at the PATCO station outside of Cherry Hill, NJ, where this odyssey would begin. It was swarming with people. The organizers were using a cattle-chute arrangement to send riders out in packs rather than in a throng, which was probably a good idea even if just from a safety standpoint.

I was shivering. A lot. It might have been the cold. Or the adrenaline. Or both.

8AM was the cutoff time; teams not prepared to leave by then would be bused to the first rest stop and their rides would be automatically shortened to 50 miles. Not wanting to incur that penalty, we hurried along and got to the start. By this point, it was possible to just enter the course in a steady stream, so with little fanfare, we were off.

The initial miles were through neighborhoods and residential areas. Police support was everywhere, holding back traffic as we needed and gauging congestion. There were also numerous volunteers along the way, showing us turns and route info. Mile one. Two. Three. Each one was marked by a roadside sign. Four. Five.

I was feeling good. The flow wasn't too crowded, and those I did feel the need to pass were politely moved aside with my calling "On your left." I was, at first, very cognizant of every mile, but after a while, I fell into a zone and just let my thighs and calves take over and do the work.

I retreated. Completely inside my own thoughts. All worries went away: Would I finish? Would I be okay? Would it rain? Would I get lost?

The bigger issues I've been carrying around all summer long -- the job concerns, the financial  woe, the depression associated with repeated rejection -- all that faded, too.

I remember looking up sometime later and coming across mile marker 17. Wow! How did that happen?

Rest Stop #1 was around the 20-mile mark, and I glided in. Support staff were everywhere, and anything a rider could need was there for the taking, from medical assistance to mechanical repairs. Water. PortaPotties. Snacks. Music. Dancing. Encouragement. All there.

We Spoke Busters agreed on a system by which we could each ride at our own pace but wait for the entire team at each stop. It was an effective way of allowing each rider to go at his/her own speed but also not to feel totally alone during the ride.

Back on the road, I found a very effective strategy for maintaining progress. I positioned myself behind a rider whose pace I felt comfortable with. Not too slow, but not so fast that I was chugging to stay close. And in that slipstream, I would just crank it. The miles piled on one another, and I definitely felt the thrill of making progress: I was actually doing this!

The countryside became much more rustic the further we went. Housing developments and stop lights were replaced by wide open farmland and the scent of horses. One home we went by was fully decorated for Halloween, with plastic ghosts and ghouls having a spree in the front yard. From behind the front gate, the homeowner screamed and bellowed, wearing a monster mask and wolfman gloves to spur us onward.

There were steady reminders of why we were doing this. Every now and again, stuck in the dirt, were lawn signs provided by MS listing the name of a patient: "Joe McDonald. Age 44. Diagnosed in 2001." There were also hand-lettered signs: "My Sister Thanks You for Riding" and "MS Sucks. You ROCK!!" Several homes had people on their lawns, cheering, clapping, bell-ringing, horn-blowing.

One of the stops had an MS patient onsite. She lay on a gurney, with a control room of equipment around her, just outside a vehicle that clearly had been designed to transport her. Her family held signs: Thank you for Riding. Thank you for Caring.

No, miss. Thank *you*. For reminding us how lucky we really are.

It was a very good feeling.

The fellow riders along the way were all so courteous. Upon passing, they would remind: On your left. On your left. If anyone was aside the road, cyclists going by would ask if he/she were okay. And there were little conversations that would pop up between strangers: "Keep it up. We're doing great. Nice weather for this, isn't it?"

The terrain began to flatten out. Several of the curbs had dustings of sand in them, indicating that we were generally making progress toward the beaches of Ocean City.

One of the rest stops served lunch. The Spoke Busters filled up on chicken sammies and veggie burgers and got back on the road.

The last leg was the one that intimidated me the most: Before crossing into the Gardens section of Ocean City, it would be necessary to cross two imposing bridges over the bay. They were long. They were high. And we would be tired.

As the ride wound down, we left the mainland town of Somers Point and, turning a bend in the road, faced the bridges head-on.

It was now or never.

I clanked down a few gears to make the pedaling easier and dug in. More. More. I passed a few riders who decided to walk their bike to the crest, but I was determined not to resort to that method of crossing. Eventually, the gravitational pull began to draw me forward, and I knew I was at the top. The view was spectacular, and with a whoosh of excitement, I flew down the opposing side.

'Round a bend. Travelling on the roadway through a marshy area. And then: Bridge Number Two.

It was shorter than the first, but the rise was steeper. Again, I shifted down and dug deep.

We agreed as a team to wait for each other at the top of this hill, and just as I was starting to really pant, I reached it. I was with one other member of our team -- someone whose pace matched mine nicely -- and we enjoyed the view. And the victory of having defeated these obstacles.

Before long, my remaining teammates joined us and together, we sailed down the far side and into Ocean City. There were cheering squads on just about every corner now, and we zoomed through the north end of the island and off to the finish at the high school.

Turning that last corner, I heard some particularly rousing cheers. There were Eileen and the girls, clapping and hooting at my achievement. Kristin held a sign on neon posterboard: Way to Go Dad!

I pulled into the bike parking area and basked in the glow of goodwill. I accepted the congratulations for the achievement and smiled from ear to ear.

The City-to-Shore Ride was one of the most gratifying things I've ever done. I was sore the next day for sure (walking the dog that night was a real lesson in tiredness). But my aches and pains and slow steps would resolve themselves in a day or two.

The people for whom I rode?

Theirs would be there the following day. And the day after that. And the day after that...

I am so blessed.

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