Sean and I drove directly to the campus of Montgomery County Community College, starting point of the Philly Challenge, with our bikes firmly attached to Sean's car. I brought with me a printed listed of all the people I wanted to honor at "the wall" at the LIVESTRONG Village: the TC Forum Family, people who had been taken from their loved ones by cancer, and people my donors wanted me to honor. We got there as soon as the Village opened so the few cards clipped to the clothes lines fluttered in the strong gusts of wind blowing through the campus.
It wasn't long before we saw Kate, Mike and Miriam walking across the lawn at the Village to join us. Our extended family, in the fullest sense of the word, was coming back together. We went through registration which, at that early hour, had no wait although the folks behind the tables were still figuring things out. But after a few fits and starts, I walked away with my bibs, a screaming yellow t-shirt, a dri-fit cap, a water bottle to add to the growing collection, a running chip (paid for back in December when I thought I'd still run) and a very nice back pack. Nathan was still on his way so we decided to go check in so we could unload all our gear. Back at the Double Tree, which after three years was starting to seem very familiar, we saw Nathan and then Scott. Nathan had won a free LIVESTRONG bike helmet back at the Village. That guy has all the luck.
In what seemed to be developing into a tradition from prior Challenges, we went to P. J. Whelihan's for dinner. I was very excited for Kate and Mike who would be running the 5K and 10K courses, respectively, the following morning. Mike had us all laughing as he recounted the reaction he had gotten from complete strangers while running on the roads in Ohio (where he and the family had been visiting) while wearing a pink bandanna on his head.
Early Saturday morning, we got to the Village and soon found Kate, Mike and Miriam. Kate looked ready to take on the 5K and Mike looked pretty good in his pink bandanna. Nathan joined us soon after as did our friend Michael and his partner David. Don, who had just driven to the area, soon found us. Not having had time to have breakfast at the hotel, I led the hunt for coffee, remembering last year's experience of downing cup after cup of Starbucks coffee. I was disappointed that all that was on offer this time was some lukewarm and bad-tasting Starbucks instant coffee. "Drink it fast" was Don's advice. He wasn't joking.
I recorded the start of the 5K and 10K runners on my PlaySport and couldn't help feeling a little wistful that I wasn't there among the runners. Ah well, I had the Sunday ride to look forward to. So off we went on the 5K walk, Sean holding little Miriam's hand the whole time. Along the way, I got a shout-out ("Hey, fellow survivor!") from a young woman who had seen my survivor tag pinned to my back. We talked about dealing with cancers that other people think are a walk in the park (thyroid cancer in her case, testicular cancer in mine) but that we know are not. Michael and I talked about returning to running. He had run the 5K in 2009 as well but had stopped training regularly.
Approaching the finish line, survivors are asked to step to the right of the lane at the end of which they each receive a yellow rose. It's one of those particularly powerful moments at these Challenges and reminds me of the mix of emotions I felt at my first Challenge. I remember thinking at the time "Wow, they really get it. They really know how terrifying and often lonely this can be." It's a humbling experience to get that honor and a reminder that with it comes a responsibility to help others.
Just like that first time, Sean and I had decided to hold hands over the yellow line that separated survivors from everyone else. I was vaguely aware of the photographers and the crowd but was a little surprised and very touched when one photographer asked us to stop for a picture while holding hands. Part of me always feels uncomfortable demonstrating so clearly that I'm part of the gay minority in this country. For all my self-assurance and advocacy for gay rights, I always expect somebody to say or do something unpleasant at any moment. But not in this case. At that moment, I genuinely felt welcome. I can hardly wait to see the photo and just hope I remembered to suck in my gut. After congratulating Kate and Mike, I joined Don, Nathan, Michael, David, and Sean for lunch at the Village. We then toured the vendors, had my picture taken pretend to ride a bike next to a virtual Lance, and got to talk to one of the members of the TC forum who had spotted me in the crowd.
Later that day, in keeping with what Nathan, Sean and I had done last year, we went to the Lucky Dog Saloon for lunch, joined this time by Don, followed by a trip to REI to pick up some bike gear. There, I struck up a conversation with a guy whose brother is a TC survivor. We members of the TC family have a way of finding each other, it seems. After that, it was back to the hotel to get ready for the Fundraising Appreciation Dinner. At the hotel, we saw Jason and Nanci and their two beautiful kids. Paul and Cathy were there ready to head off to the dinner.
Having raised $3400 this year, I qualified for the dinner and could bring Sean as my guest. I had declined to go last year but this time didn't want to miss it. Lance Armstrong was attending this time and the venue was very close to where we were staying. Thanks to the generosity of Sean's coworker Susan, Nathan and Don were able to go as her guests along with her friend Amy. At the dinner, we joined Paul and Cathy, Kevin and Melissa to make an all-LOVEstrong table near the stage. The dinner was a great opportunity to hear from the other teams that had raised so much money or who had a particularly powerful message or who had otherwise stood out. Everyone was very enthusiastic about this joint effort to fight cancer. A tough moment came, however, when the survivors were asked to stand up. We were clearly in the minority in that hall and I wondered at the stories each of those survivors could tell about their fight with cancer. Caregivers were then asked to stand up and I felt a lump in my throat seeing Don stand up. After the dinner, Kevin managed to intercept Lance as he was leaving and Melissa quickly took a picture of the two of them. We hurried back to the hotel where I prepared everything for the following day's ride knowing that we'd want to get to the starting line as early as possible to beat the crush. I got hardly any sleep that night.
The morning started early, with the two of us waiting for an empty elevator to take our bikes down. Everybody at the hotel had the same idea so I eventually gave up and carried my bike down the fire escape stairwell. It had rained the night before but I hoped the weather would stay dry. The low-hanging clouds suggested it wouldn't. I had never ridden on wet pavement so I was already getting nervous, imagining I'd spill out on the slick roads of Montgomery County and thinking I might have to settle for the twenty mile ride instead of my planned-for 45 route.
At the LIVESTRONG Village, a photographer started taking pictures of me, Sean and Nathan as we unloaded our bikes. He seemed to took special interest in shooting me pumping up my bike tires. Go figure. Kate, Mike and Miriam caught up with us and we then found the rest of the gang, including Mark from the TC forum. As the time for the ride start drew closer, we separated into our respective groups: Nathan in the 100, Kevin in the 70, Don and I in the 45, everybody else in the 10 and 20. I stayed back to let the other 45 milers go ahead of me, having never ridden in such a large group and not wanting to get caught in the crush. Before long, I set out and was on Morris Road with the rest of the people doing the 45-mile ride. With that, came a surge of excitement. It was hard to hold back during those first few miles. The pavement was damp but it wasn't raining, the road was mostly downhill at that point, and it felt great to be pedaling among such a huge mass of fellow cancer fighters for my very first time. Nathan's sound advice to take it easy in the beginning is all that kept me from racing ahead of everyone. This was going to be fun.
By the time I got to the turn-off for the 20-mile route, it had started to rain. I could have turned off then and spared myself riding in the rain over a longer course but it seemed like taking the easy way out. I hadn't come this far just to turn back. Besides, there was a hill halfway through the ride I meant to take so I couldn't stop now. I pulled into the first power stop at Advent Lutheran Church where, listening to Nathan's voice in my head, I made a point of eating. My glasses and rearview mirror were doing me no good in the rain so I stowed them away.
It was there that, while waiting in line for a Porta John, a woman by the name of Ursula introduced herself to me and congratulated me on being a two-time survivor. But my own experience with cancer seemed like nothing once I asked her to describe her own experience. Suffice it to say that within a few minutes I realized I was standing in front of somebody who embodied the very idea of survivorship, someone who despite a series of past and current (and possibly future) challenges was here to do her part. She was a seasoned long-distance rider on top of it all. It was at that moment I was glad to be riding under the now constant rainfall on the windy and hilly roads of rural Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in the company of people of Ursula's caliber.
Bill, Ursula's husband, motioned for her to get going. A short while later, I set off as well. Navigating some tight corners on the slick pavement was nerve-racking, leaving me wondering if the bike would slip out from under me. At about that time, Lance Armstrong and his entourage were coming down the road towards us on his return from the 45-mile course. That, more than anything, demonstrated just how much of a world-class athlete he really is. We all cheered as he passed.
Heading towards Perkiomenville and the next rest stop, I felt myself gaining confidence. By that point, I had noticed that many other cyclists would get off their bikes at the slightest uphill. I'll confess to feeling a little cocky as I pedaled past the walkers, most of whom had expensive road bikes, in my trusty but decidedly not sleek hybrid bike with its odd-shaped handlebar extensions. It felt odd breathlessly calling out "on your left" as I passed people trudging up the hills on foot.
I rolled into the power stop at the twenty mile mark thinking I'd stay only long enough to refill my water bottles and have some peanut butter sandwiches before tackling the big hill ahead. But then the rain actually started to pick up. Before long, it was coming down in sheets. My bike shoes were now water logged and I felt like I was carrying so many extra pounds as my bike clothes were soaked through. The power stop started filling up with more cyclists, perhaps all thinking like I was that we could wait this out. A few guys, not wanting to cool down or maybe wanting to show off, dropped to the ground and started doing push ups. My thoughts alternated between "cyclists are crazy" and "why am I doing this?" A few of us huddled under the trees and talked about how, after the next climb, we faced a steep decline that might prove perilous in the hard rain. I figured I could always walk down that hill after riding up to the crest, an odd reversal of the usual pattern.
Riders started leaving the power stop so, after about half an hour of hoping and waiting for the rain to calm down, I figured I should just press on. By the time I got to the base of the hill at Niantic Road, the rain was hitting my eyes so hard I could barely see. True to pattern, it seemed like at least half the cyclists were getting off their bikes to walk up the hill, often right in the middle of the road. So I had to pedal up this incline blinded by the rain and wind while swerving to avoid people walking all over the road. Yet, somehow, it was a great climb! The wind whistled through the glistening leaves of the trees looming overhead and the grade of the road eventually became less challenging as I moved along. The "big" hill I had so dreaded was actually rather exciting. Sure I was in the granny gear but that hill was far less daunting than I had feared.
The real excitement came, however, when I reached the crest of the hill and faced a 260 foot drop over half a mile on a road that more resembled a river. Down I went, unclipping from the pedals for fear of tumbling still attached to the bike and gently pressing the brakes for fear of accelerating out of control. Some riders road past me while others got off their bikes and walked down that flume. I can't recall if it was at the bottom of that hill or one of the next hills that lay before us that I saw an ambulance being loaded with someone on a stretcher, undoubtedly a rider who had lost control of his bike. Seeing that made it clear that this was indeed a dangerous ride. I hadn't faced cancer only to break my neck on a bike ride so I continued to engage the brakes to slow my descent.
It was a relief to arrive at the next rest stop where I saw Bill again. After talking to some of the other riders, I set out again and started hitting some more hills, none of them particularly challenging. A pattern seemed to emerge on these hills: people would race past me on the downhills as I braked to control my speed out of fear of losing control. I was keenly aware of my inexperience riding in the rain. Yet at the next climb, I would pass the very same people who had all unclipped and were walking their bikes up. At one point, one of these other riders started to walk towards the middle of the road and I narrowly missed hitting her as I rode past.
I also had a few close calls in some narrow stretches and in some tight turns of the road but was, by that point, eager to get back. Riding back to the Lutheran Church power stop, the last on the ride, I was pedaling a little too hard up a hill and tried to switch my chain ring, something I know can cause my chain to drop out. Sure enough it did but before I could even finish putting it back on another rider stopped to help out. I had witnessed other riders helping each other out during the ride and, despite my embarrassment at having made such a rookie mistake, was grateful for the sense of community spirit.
There were many such moments that made riding a far better experience than running at the Challenge, the bad conditions notwithstanding. On one straight stretch of road when the rain had calmed down, I found myself riding alone but noticed a group of cyclists riding in a tight formation and coming up fast on my left. "On your left, survivor, sir" the first rider called out as he passed me. That left me speechless.
By the time I reached the final few miles of the ride, my brakes were effectively gone. I started wondering if I would be able to stop the bike quickly enough if needed but I kept on pedaling, eager to get back to the Village on the college campus. The rain had started to pick up again and I found myself having to pass slower riders in the midst of heavy car traffic. One last bit of excitement lay ahead. I came to a busy intersection with a right turn lane, forcing me to come up behind the other riders waiting at the red light between the right turn lane and the lane for through traffic. The driver of the third car at the light decided to change her mind and make a right turn from the middle lane through the cyclists. A lot of yelling ensued as the confused driver insisted on crossing the now fast-moving line of riders proceeding straight. I couldn't slow my bike fast enough and so had to swerve so as not to get hit, yelling at the driver in colorful language.
After that, I couldn't wait to get back. I unclipped from the pedals as soon as I turned into the return chute before the finish line, afraid of hitting somebody should they stop short ahead of me. I had visions of running over one of the volunteers handing out roses to the survivors. In the rain, the faces in the crowd of cheering people looked like a blur save for one: Joe from our the TC forum, whose bald head stood out like a beacon. Seeing his smiling face and bare pate put a smile on my face like nothing else that day.
Grabbing my rose, I looked around to see if I could find Sean. The first person I saw running up was Kate, who gave me a warm embrace, with Sean right behind her. We were joined by my friends from the Voices of Survivors Foundation Rich and Jess. Within minutes, we were joined by Bill and Ursula. Wet, tired, and filthy, I couldn't be happier. Despite the conditions, I felt strangely energized and even imagined that, but for the rain, would gladly have gone on riding.
Sean took my bike back to the car, Don found me before making the return trip to his house, I managed to find Joe so I could joke about how he and his head stand out in a crowd, and I was off back to the hotel. By the time Nathan and Scott returned to the hotel from their rides, the sun was actually starting to shine. Great timing. But this Challenge wouldn't have been as, well, challenging had it taken place in the sun. After cleaning up, Scott, Paul, Cathy, Sean, Nathan, Kate, Mike, Miriam reminisced about the day over dinner at California Pizza Kitchen at Plymouth Meeting Mall where we briefly debated whether it was better to ride in the rain or in humid sunny weather. I unequivocally voted for the latter. You can always rehydrate, after all, but riding wet roads on smooth bike tires is just treacherous.
Nathan, Sean, Kate, Mike, Miriam and I regrouped the following morning at Blue Bell Diner in one last nod to last year's Challenge. The service and food were disappointing but what mattered was the companionship. The skies were clear as we left but it was raining by the time we got home, somehow fitting given the weather we experienced this weekend.
This, my third Challenge, was indeed memorable. The sheer length of this blog entry reflects just how important the weekend of August 20th-22nd, 2010 was to me. I reconnected, even if briefly, with some wonderful people and met some new people who are nothing less than amazing. The volunteers at the Village and at the power stops were all lovely people and I made a point of thanking every one with whom I interacted. The police controlling the traffic for the riders gave us all an added sense of security on some of the busier intersections. Everything went smoothly short of the one thing nobody could control: the weather. And nothing was as delicious as the peanut butter sandwiches at the power stops.
I learned a lot about cycling, too: I never want to ride in the rain again if I can avoid it. I can't count on other cyclists signaling their intentions or calling out when they're passing. I actually prefer to climb a hill than to go down it, as insane as that may seem. I can take on longer rides by simply breaking them down into segments interrupted by stops to eat and hydrate. I'm sure there are other things I've learned but these stand out.
But above all, I learned that this event, like cycling itself, can bring out the best in people: a sense of community and working in common cause to do good for others.