At five o’clock the sun was still two hours from rising, but I was getting up. I’m well aware there are wonderful people who get up this early everyday. People with important jobs, people with awful jobs, people whose only time to exercise is before their important or awful jobs who drag themselves out of bed and out of the house before the fella who throws the newspapers from the window of his car drives by (and of course, he’s one of them, too). And some people actually like getting up early—people who might have been Benedictine Monks in another life, or if things had gone differently, in this one.
I’m not one of those people.
I’ve hated getting up before the sun since I was old enough for school. Never seemed right starting a day before the day started. Puritan work ethic be damned, this has to be a sin. If God wanted people to get up earlier, the Almighty would have switched on the overhead sooner. One of my greatest pleasures—one of the most wonderful perks I discovered—upon becoming a full-time writer was that I never again had to get up before dawn. Yet on Friday morning, September 13th (yes, Friday the 13th) I did just that.
I squinted in the stark glare of the bathroom light brushing teeth and searching for clothes I laid out the night before. Spandex shorts with padding in the seat, low rise cotton socks, slipper-like sneakers, and a brightly colored yellow, black, and white biking jersey with an American flag patch on one shoulder and a blue Ride to Conquer Cancer logo on the chest. After a summer of training as best I could, the big day was here. I was going to ride 150 miles on my wife’s bicycle. Two days later I would celebrate my 53rd birthday.
I’m not athletic. The only sport I played in high school was tennis, and I only did okay. I’m not overweight. I was underweight most of my life, so when I hit the mid-thirties-metabolism-slow-down, I ballooned up to a normal person’s weight. Still, for the last decade I’ve been a novelist, which is about as sedimentary as a professional World of Warcraft gamer. I did try and bike five to ten miles several times a week, and I often took walks to conceptualize stories, but there’s a world of difference between that and preparing to ride a century and a half over two days. Thing was, I figured the distance would be my biggest problem. I had no idea what lay ahead.
I’m one of those people whose stomach doesn’t wake up until around ten-thirty, so while my wife drove us in the dark to the start of the ride, some twenty minutes away in Maryland, I force-fed myself a bowl of tuna fish pasta and baked beans. This magic combination I determined to be the only thing I could make myself eat that would also sustain me for hours of biking.
We arrived at the Academy of the Holy Cross where an army of yellow jerseys were bivouacked on a lawn under arc lamps. A row of green plastic “Gene’s Johns” lined one end, while the rest was filled with white tents housing food, information, bike mechanics, media sign-ups and rider check-In.
Blinking, still barely awake, my wife, Robin, made sure I had my gear and snapped pictures like a proud mother on her boys’ first day of school. As the sky brightened to a gunmetal gray, the ceremony began at the starting line where we all waited holding our bikes. The national anthem was followed by a morale rousing speech, then a heart-felt, tear-welling address by cancer survivor Andrew Reed who was joining in the ride despite news his cancer had spread and had undergone surgery little more than two weeks earlier. Then as music blared we were unleashed in a congested line of matching jerseys and an odd assortment of helmets, gloves, capes, and bikes.
I waited letting most of those with sculptured calfs and snap-on peddle shoes go ahead. I held up until almost everyone else was gone, then I slowly, tentatively mounted up, waved goodbye to my wife, and began peddling.
Go slow. I told myself. This isn’t a race. I just have to finish. Turns out I didn’t need the advice. We were single file on a narrow road and riding tire-to-tire for miles. Bikes peeled off to adjust hastily assembled gear, and I moved ahead. Then I soon began to see folks on the side fixing flats. Already? This turned out to be a chronic problem as I passed dozens of riders on the side fitting new tubes to injured tires. Later I realized why. Maryland has a lot of junk on the sides of roads: screws, glass, nails, pins. Soon I felt like Hans Solo flying through an asteroid field.
We hit a few hills where traffic was light and I found myself passing a number of the slower riders. This made me feel a little more confident. I wasn’t at the end anymore. Mile by mile I crept up the pack and was feeling good. The tuna salad and beans were doing their magic, and twenty miles later when it came time to make the first pit stop I had no need to bother and just kept on rolling.
Instantly I was in another league. By skipping the stop I had moved way ahead and suddenly those I rode with were lean, muscled youths. Men and women I had no business riding with. I kept my head down and just tried to find my normal rhythm.
We traveled north through meandering roads past homes that had McMansions for garages. These places had named roads for driveways and gates with separate entrances and exits. As I approached the thirty mile mark, I was getting hungry. My fuel tank light was on and I’d needed more magic beans to continue, but otherwise I was feeling good and began to think, this wouldn’t be so bad.
Then it began to rain.
The weatherman had promised a sunny day with a high of 75. The weatherman is not to be trusted. The weatherman I think was invented by the brother’s Grimm. That gunmetal sky never got any brighter and by mid-morning it was chilly and a light rain began to fall. I quickly shoveled down forks full of pasta and beans and a few bites of a Snicker’s bar. Then I changed clothes.
Years ago when we used to kayak, my wife and I bought these expensive fleece shirts that, when worn next to the skin, can keep you warm and dry even after a dunking in the ocean. I slipped the fleece on and my jersey over top and shivering so hard the bike shimmied, I set out once more, this time into a solid downpour.
Keeping my head down and using the visor on my helmet to protect my eyes from the drops, I plowed on, and after the first few good hills I warmed to a comfortable level. Only problem was, there were more than a few good hills. Maryland as it turns out is not the midwest. Apparently a mountain range runs through it.
Spraying water on slick roads we dove up and down hugging white lines on narrow two lanes that cut through what I’m certain was a very picturesque landscape. The few glimpses I had of the idyllic farms and corn fields with green mountains rising in the rainy mist was lovely, but who had time to look? I was watching the white line where the narrow shoulder—in addition to the afore mentioned screws, glass and nails—was also mined with holes, grates, and washouts. As riders ahead pointed out traps to those behind, I no longer had trouble wondering why so many were repairing tires, but by why some weren’t.
The cool temperatures lingered, the rain continued, and so did the ride. Mile after mile passed and soon I found myself alone on a vast empty country road wondering if I had missed a turn. They had arrows and decade mile markers stapled to telephone poles along the way, but I could easily have missed one. Just as I was growing concerned I saw another marker and knew I was on track, but I was still alone. From thousands to one, it was a strange feeling.
I wasn’t really alone. My wife was in the car leap-frogging me and already at the next pit stop. She would occasionally call me asking how I was doing, her voice popping in my head via one earbud. She sounded like Lindsey talking to Bud when he descended to the bottom in the Abyss in the James Cameron movie, only it wasn’t near that bad, wasn’t too bad at all. As I left the final pit stop with only ten miles to go, I was feeling downright cocky. Then came the hills.
One after another, each one bigger than the one before. Cresting one, gasping for air, we’d see another hill looming. By the sixth or seventh, even many of the young and fit began walking their bikes. I refused. I wanted to be able to say I rode the whole way, but that final hill was a killer.
There ought to be a motivational saying that starts: “When you can’t find the strength to peddle up the hill and discover you’re already on your lowest gear, that’s when you find what you’re capable of.” After riding seventy-one miles they saved the toughest for last. Mount Two-lane Asphalt went nearly vertical—at least it seemed that way. Gripping the bars low with my head down so that the rain water dripped off my nose, I locked my upper body and just pumped—breathed and pumped. I must have been going all of about .0002 miles an hour up that hill. Worms driven up by the rain were passing me. At times I wondered how I was staying vertical, and then I noticed the effort lessen and I was at the top, then down the other side and coasting into the end of Day One while people cheered and rang cow bells and thanked me.
People thanked me a lot.
Folks handing out apples and peanut butter (a fantastic taste treat I never tried before) thanked me for riding. People handing out bananas and peanut butter (another must-try combination) thanked me. Crowds along the road, police officers directing traffic for us, and even other riders thanked me. Thing was I honestly didn’t know why, and it made me uncomfortable as if I was pretending to something I didn’t deserve.
I was just riding a bike. Granted it was in the rain and cold, but I’ve done stupider things in my life for no reason at all. I went canoeing for six days in similar weather sleeping in a soaking tent. No one ever thanked me. Sure, this was to raise money to fund finding a cure for cancer, and sure I gave some money too, but mostly I just asked other people to give money to the effort. Those are the people who did something, and it was usually people who didn’t have much money to give, but they did anyway. I ended up raising about $3,000 for the ride, and the ride as a whole raised 2.6 million, but mostly all I did was ride a sodden bike for two days. And I didn’t even have to do that. If I wanted to I could have given up, packed the bike and gone home. It wasn’t like if I didn’t finish the money wouldn’t be used. The funds I raised would still be collected, still go for the cure. The ride was pointless—but still, I had promised people that I would do it if they gave. I never once believed that’s why they gave the money, but I hate failing to fulfill promises. Maybe that was why I refused to walk the damn bike up the mother-of-all-hills even when no one else was there to see, even when it didn’t matter. And still it felt awkward having all these people thanking me as if I’d personally cured cancer that afternoon while peddling in the rain. I wish it was that easy.
The next day the weather had one more surprise. No more rain, but the temperatures dropped to 48 degrees. Usually I never bike in temps below seventy. Forty-eight was uncalled for especially when everything everyone had was soaked through from the day before. Getting up in the cold—again before dawn’s early light—and in having to put on wet shorts and waterlogged sneakers, and then bike in a headwind is…well, the opposite of fun. Thankfully I still had my fleece, my wonderful mithril armor, that I wore beneath my jersey.
That morning we rode out under a cloud-free sky to a rising sun that scattered shadows across farms and fields. My legs, as you might imagine were not pleased with me. I learned that at age forty, my body no longer recovered from excessive anything after just one night’s rest. At fifty, that point was beyond obvious. I began riding on rubber band thighs. The good news was that after the first downhill glide, I couldn’t feel them much because they were sort of numb.
It could have been worse. It could have been a hundred degrees, or I could have been one of the many riders with yellow flags attached to the backs of their bikes. The flags designated cancer survivors.
We all rode in the rain and cold, and rode a hundred and fifty miles through punishing hills and dangerously narrow roads, and I never heard a single complaint. All I ever heard from my fellow riders were words of encouragement to each other.
“You got this!”
“I’ve got nothing left for these hills, but I’m not stopping.”
“You call this a hill? Lieutenant Dan wouldn’t call this a hill!”
“Life is like a box of chocolates!”
“Anyone got a box of chocolates? I’d love a box of chocolates right now.”
If that sounds like dialog from a great war movie where a raw platoon struggles though a rough hike, that’s sort of what it was like. Everyone watched out for everyone else, and for one brief shining moment, total strangers were life-long friends.
By noon on Sunday it was warm enough to lose the fleece. I had been dead tired mid-morning, but as we neared the end—I don’t know, maybe it was riders’ high, but I didn’t feel tired at all. The last few miles was a giddy laugh-fest as red-faced bikers joked and screamed at long traffic lights yelling, “For god sake, we only have point five miles left! Change already!”
And then we were rolling in the fenced off corridor of fame where tv cameras threw our images on a big screen and an announcer called off names and congratulated us, and again thanked us. A whole crowd of strangers filled a hillside applauding and everywhere I went I was thanked.
They had food. They had drinks, but I didn’t stay. I took my obligatory photo in front of the I Conquered It sign, and left. I didn’t want to be thanked anymore.
As I walked my bike out to the parking lot a man asked if we were going to do the ride again next year.
“What do you mean, next year?” I asked. “Didn’t you hear? We conquered it. They’ll find a cure in the next few months, right?”
The man offered an awkward smile. “Sure, so next year it will be a ride to remember the ride that ended cancer for good.”
And there it was that unrelenting optimism that couldn’t be squelched, that couldn’t be marred even by decades of disappointments and deaths. I thought of all the people who consider fantasy books about heroes that do good for good sake, or who keep fighting against an impossible foe and say such things are simply unrealistic., that people don’t act that way in real life. People are innately selfish, cowards who’d throw their neighbor under a bus to get a step further ahead. I thought of those people, and then of all the riders I’d spent the last two days with, and all those people standing in the rain on street corners cheering us on, all those who gave their few extra dollars when I asked, of my wife who watched out and took care of me along the whole route, and of Andrew Reed, and the other yellow flagged bikers, and I stopped. I halted right there in the parking lot and turned to the guy asking about next year’s ride.
I smiled and said, “Thank you.”