Sunday, November 10, 2013

Unlike Anything

Crossing the finish line after more than 500 miles. What an exhilarating feeling!

Two Saturday afternoons ago, I was riding down Pacific Coast Highway through some of the most beautiful and affluent coastal cities in Southern California, pushing through the final miles of the 11th AIDS LifeCycle toward the Veteran’s Center in Los Angeles.  During the previous six days, I had been pedaling from before sun-up to late in the afternoon, pressing the envelope of my own physical endurance and riding an emotional roller coaster ranging from elation to inexplicable feelings of empathy and grief for people I didn’t know. What kind of event could have drawn such an experience that crashes all borders and invades the spiritual? What had I gotten myself into, indeed!

The AIDS LifeCycle is an event that raises money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the LA Gay and Lesbian Center’s Jeffrey Goodman Special Care Clinic. Both beneficiaries focus on providing state of the art medical care as well as basic needs for those afflicted with HIV and AIDS. Some of their research and treatment protocols push well beyond California and are adopted across the country and worldwide. Bypassing the statistics and the emotional manipulation one might expect from a fundraiser, I was put face-to-face with this thing called HIV. There was a face to the disease that transcended race, gender, sexual orientation, creed, and social status. There were people who told their stories, simply and authentically and that eliminated any need for trying to play on one’s heart strings. This was real and it proved beyond any doubt that what we were doing in raising money and awareness was saving lives. And it was instilling a sense of profound gratitude that made it progressively easier over the course of the ride, to push past any discomfort.

I did say easier, but by no means easy.  Determination and attitude will only get you so far, albeit quite some distance.  It still took a lot of personal dedication to the physical training to be able to ride a bicycle over 500 miles during the course of a week and I can personally attest to feeling not just a little saddle sore to accompany some aching knees and shoulders, numb hands, and tired-as-hell legs and feet! I can also attest to the extreme fatigue from pushing oneself this hard. But I will tell you that not since earning my naval aviator wings, have I ever felt so incredibly and completely delighted and genuinely satisfied in achieving something. And while there’s certainly a sense of accomplishment, there’s a selflessness that transcends achievement and pushes the ego aside to take center stage and joins each and every participant to a fellowship of sorts. It’s the kind of mysterious relationship that evokes tears for no apparent reason and makes even the most reserved person gush with enthusiasm. There may be some merit in the comment of someone very close to me, “It was a religious experience for you.” Bear in mind, I am not a religious person.

The LifeCycle Experience

So, what was it actually like then? Anyone who knows me at all will know that my personal life has pretty much revolved around getting ready for this event for the past several months.  My Saturdays were spent training and many evenings spent emailing and on facebook, working on fundraising. When it came down to the wire, fundraising was done, travel arrangements were made, and my bicycle was shipped to San Francisco. And then it was a matter of the challenge of packing and wrapping up the details to be out of pocket for seven days without the electronic conveniences that make up our 21st century lives. Well, I must admit to having my iPhone with me and charged up thanks to a solar charger and an external battery. No laptop, no TV, no NPR for seven days was a bit of a throwback to 20 years ago, but it really does give you an appreciation for having so much at your disposal. My rolling North Face bag was stuffed to the gills with seven sets of cycling gear (“kit”), camping gear, a toiletry bag, and a couple of outfits to wear in camp at night.  I also had a carry-on bag that included things like my helmet.  It was tight, but manageable.  Besides, I figured I’d have a good amount actually on the bike each day, so it would fit.  I also had a pack of postcards that I had planned on writing to my supporters to thank them from the road. What’s that they say about the ‘best of intentions?’ Yeah, yeah…I still have that pack and stamps virtually untouched but for two I actually did write out.  One of the pieces of sage advice was to leave all that at home because by the time you get in each night, all you want to do is shower, eat, and go to sleep.  Noted…and validated by this independent examiner.

When the alarm clock went off on Saturday, June 2, I was both exhausted from the early hour and excited to actually begin the trek I had been planning all this time. I made it to the sleepy little Orange County airport a good 90 minutes prior to my flight, knowing that the lines were practically nil, let alone before dawn on a weekend. And that was true for every airline except the one I was flying. Thankfully, I made it through the airline queue in time to breeze through the nonexistent security line which was oddly at the other end of the airport. The short flight to San Francisco had me arriving in time to get my baggage and hit the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit for those of you who have never been to San Francisco) toward Daly City where the orientation process was scheduled to start at 10:00 am. I had a notion of dropping my luggage off at the hotel in downtown San Francisco and then riding back out to orientation, but found I was headed through Daly City anyway and decided to get off and store the luggage where I would be spending the day. No sooner had I gotten off at the BART station, I saw a line of taxis and decided to have them haul my luggage for me and get me directly to the Cow Palace, where the orientation was taking place and where the ride would originate the next day. Now, we’ve all heard the jokes about cabbies being foreigners and not understanding English, but those stories are well…probably based in truth. I went to the front of the queue and the cabbie took my luggage and put it in the trunk and I asked him to get me to the Cow Palace since I had no idea where it was.  He nodded and drove off and as we’re moving, started punching in details in his Garmin GPS unit on the windshield.  Yes, the bells started going off. I said, “Hey, that’s cheating.” He said that he had just gotten to San Francisco about a week ago from Yemen through his thick accent. I had him stop the cab and gave him the address and to put in his GPS. At least this way, I know he wouldn’t be taking me for the proverbial ride but rather taking me to the real place! He re-started his meter and we were off. Pulling off the freeway, I was relieved to see my teammates coming off a different line of the BART from the opposite direction and had him stop the cab.  I knew I would be with people who knew what was going on and if we all got lost, it would be together. But, these guys were, for the most part, veterans of the event.  We transferred to a bus and arrived at the Cow Palace about 20 minutes later en masse wearing orange knit beanies with silk leaves coming from the top.  These bright orange knit caps helped us find each other amid the teeming masses and they identified us as “Team OC." Yes, orange caps, Orange County…you made the connection!
At the Cow Palace just before Opening Ceremonies
The Cow Palace is a huge arena, the kind of place that is great for housing those teeming masses I was referring to (and part of!) and it was there we began standing in the many lines that would be much of our existence for the next week.  We began with a safety presentation that spanned the rules of the road and went through what we could expect on the route.  We also were reminded why we were there. “Nothing is more important than safety” was drilled into our cerebral cortex more than a few times and the message, “It’s a ride, not a race” capped off our time together as we met a few past participants sharing pieces of advice from their experiences. It put everything into perspective as we moved into another area to officially check-in, register, and get tent assignments. I was surprised at how organized things were and just how smoothly the whole process worked.  To have over 2,200 cyclists and 550 support crew (“roadies”) shuffle through without mayhem was an administrative marvel. Getting our gear from point A to point B and feeding us all would be a logistical miracle, yet the finesse with which it happened was truly amazing.
I got reacquainted with my bicycle that had made it unharmed from Orange County and pumped up my tires so I wouldn’t have to worry about it in the early morning, retrieved my baggage, and reversed the route with my orange-capped teammates to the hotel where I could enjoy a real mattress for a few hours that night.  We celebrated the beginning of our adventure together that evening at a nice Italian restaurant called Bocce, eating plenty of carbs, and having a fun walk back to our hotel through Chinatown.

4:00 am came early and I said good-bye to that lovely, comfortable mattress, donning the familiar, spandex armor that leaves embarrassingly little to the imagination. For those of us north of 40 and losing the battle of the bulge, it’s simply an admission of age. What can I say? I like to eat…and cycling makes you hungry! Alas, I digress. The Cow Palace was filled to overflowing with enthusiastic riders and roadies. This was really happening. Opening ceremonies was a mixture of elation and somber reminder of why we ride and it proved that AIDS is no respecter of age, orientation, gender, or race.  Once again, a familiar lump in my throat forced its way up as a veteran rider told the story of why she rode.  She relived the horror of finding out her mother was HIV-positive and given a terminal diagnosis, but was rescued from the literal brink of death thanks to the anti-retroviral drug cocktails…and then she introduced her to us as she was in the audience having lived over 20 years after that near-death experience…and to top it off, she was volunteering as a roadie. The arena broke into deafening cheers and applause and suffice it to say, her mother was an instant celebrity! It wouldn’t be the last time my emotions went on a roller coaster ride during the week. Lorri Jean, executive director of the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, a veteran rider herself, declared the ride open and the mass of humanity that is the LifeCycle surged toward the bicycle storage area to take to the streets of San Francisco amid more ear-splitting cheers. And so we were off!

Each day brought its own unique rewards and challenges, its own special circumstances that made it memorable. Day 1, apart from being exciting simply because it was the beginning of our trek down the coast was wonderful in that some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen was something I could smell and reach out and touch rather than see from a postcard or a coffee table book.  Our route took us out of the city to the coast and through a beautiful winding (and uphill) road through the forest to Half Moon Bay and then down to Santa Cruz.  Along this route, we were given some tail winds to blow us in toward the end of the day and I was not just a little surprised to see I had hit 48.6 miles per hour going down a hill, my fastest speed ever on two wheels.  I have no desire to reach 50 by the way. I usually pedal along between 15 and 20 on the flat surface with no wind, so this was extraordinary. Pulling into Santa Cruz after more than 80 miles was rewarding and a learning experience. Our baggage was sent ahead and awaited our arrival along with a tent that we pitched at a precise location on a grid amid a sea of identical temporary abodes. Oh, and then we could go shower, which was, in and of itself, another unique experience.  Having spent many years in the military, adapting to the environment is second nature, but finding where everything happens to be is always the challenge.  Our showers were essentially semi-trailers that were outfitted into semi-private shower stalls.  We always had hot water and a bank of sinks stood outside each trailer for shaving, brushing teeth, and restoring our unruly manes to human looking after a severe case of helmet head. There were about eight of these trailers and there never seemed to be much of a wait, if at all. They were separated out by gender and even “gender neutral” for those who were either in transition or for those who just wanted to get cleaned up and unfettered by modesty, I guess. Not surprisingly, there was never an issue about shower facilities.

The "Quad Buster"

As much as the weather was simply gorgeous on day 1, it turned south as we did.  Riding through strawberry fields, I couldn’t get the Beatles out of my mind…strawberry fields forever…because that’s what it looked like. And the aroma wafting off the fields was amazing! It was absolutely wonderful. One of the many people cheering us on held out strawberries for us to grab along the way and I have to say they were the sweetest and best tasting berries I have ever had.  I am totally spoiled now for the taste of a fresh strawberry. After the first pit stop, things started to cool down and there was a bit of a mist, which gave way to rain and wind and from what I heard, hail in some areas. By the time I got to the second stop, it was downright cold and all I could do to keep warm was get back on the bike and pedal.  Boy, was I regretting taking my rain gear out of my suitcase. The Weather Channel had no forecast of rain all week…yeah, right! Oh, by the way, 30% should translate as “pack your rain gear, boy!” By the time I pulled into the lunch pit at mile 48, it was really cold and I was met with the vision of space blankets everywhere.  The medical tent was in front of me as I arrived and the first thing I saw was someone totally wrapped up in silver Mylar.
I got my lunch and sat down under the eaves of an outbuilding and shivered while I ate. I decided to wait out the storm before heading on the remaining 60 miles, but before I could even finish lunch, the event coordinators closed the route. Some 1400 of us were all freezing together and it looked like we would be bused to the next stop in King City. Many were covered in the Mylar and others had trash bags keeping them somewhat dry.  I can thank my teammates for keeping me from getting downright hypothermic. Never had a group hug felt so good…and I think it’s fair to say that we were all keeping each other warm like some hive of killer bees!  At some point we were able to get into the student center of the community college across the street and dry out a bit.  And never one to miss an opportunity, the Mylar became the stuff of fashion! And never did the shower feel so good as it did that evening! And never was I so impressed at the quick logistics of getting so many people taken care of and to have no griping about the arrangements. We were all in it together.

Halfway to LA!
Day 3 brought the first of the monumental hills with a name. The “Quad-Buster” was a steep hill about eight miles into the day’s ride and it was the proving ground that showed my training had put me in good stead. I can’t say that I did it in style, but I made it. Likewise, day 4 held the infamous “Evil Twins,” a different kind of hill that wasn’t as steep, but a much longer climb and misled one to think it was conquered only to find a second peak hiding a few miles farther, hence the name. But it climaxed with a spectacular view of the Pacific and the official half-way mark of the ride and a lovely 13-mile downhill stretch. And there was much rejoicing! Day 5 brought a much needed day of comic relief that came not only in the form of a comedian at dinner, but as well the much loved “red dress” day.  The sight of a red ribbon going on for miles is truly awesome to behold and that was the original vision for it, but many have taken things literally and wear a red dress…and I must say some people should not wear dresses! Everything from spectacular evening gowns to sun dresses to costumes was seen.  I, being the more modest guy, just wore red cycling gear and called it good. Maybe next year, I’ll go halfway and wear a kilt with a red tartan. I should add here that day 5 was not the only day for creative wardrobe.  One team of six riders (two women and four rather burly men) had a great costume every day.  One day they all dressed as Dolly Parton. The guys pulling off a platinum wig and DDD bust balloons with their dark facial hair made for a great and indelible image! Another day, they were the wandering gnomes. Still another, a few were dressed as chickens and others as Colonel Sanders in pursuit. There were some dressed as oompa loompas of the Willy Wonka story. There was no lack of imagination! 

Day 6 brought us in to Ventura where we camped by the beach and held a candle-light vigil. It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever participated in and yet, not a word was spoken.  The sight of 3,000 candles created a surreal image of unity that flowed with passion and yet really showed the fragility of life and light. The vigil was ended with the extinguishing of the flames in the surf and the movement of the light toward the water was absolutely breathtaking and tragic at the same time. The way the flames flowed with the people and then went out was beyond words. And of course, day 7 brought both the sadness that our world that was described as a great big ‘bubble of love’ was about to be popped as the event came to a close and we went on about our lives. We wound our way down Pacific Coast Highway through some of the most exclusive and expensive real estate in the world and then we saw the sign that proclaimed we had entered the city of angels and it was beyond obvious that we had so many, many angels in our midst. It seemed fitting to end here. Team OC gathered at a Starbucks about a mile out from the Veteran’s Center where we would finish and rode in as one. Crossing that line that marked the end of more than 500 miles was a feeling that once again brought those tears as I pumped my fist in the air with thousands of people welcoming me and my fellow riders into the park. For the first time, my knees felt weak, but not from having pedaled so far, but from something else that I couldn’t describe and in the arms of so many teammates, we all just wept until we didn’t. We all had carried each other at some point, but it was time to just be (after making sure we had enough water of course!).
So ended the grand adventure amid thousands of my fellow riders and roadies, family and friends. It was not just a little overwhelming to be enveloped in so much love, to see so many smiles, to hear so much laughter, to be part of something so, so much bigger than oneself, and to know that we all made a difference in the lives of someone else. When I consider how many people gave financially and how many more gave words of encouragement, I’m awestruck at the magnitude of it all. It’s one thing to recount the highlights of a seven-day trip that was so utterly overflowing with…with stuff and junk and indescribable other things I can’t put words to, but it’s entirely another to be part of it, to experience the ineffable. 
My gratitude is genuine and my heart sincere when I simply say, “thank you” to the many, many people whom have given of themselves in whatever amount and in whatever fashion to make this possible, to my fellow teammates of Team OC who are now part of my extended family, to the thousands of riders, roadies, staff, and behind-the-scenes people who made ALC happen. You’re all awesome. I hope you know that…you’re all heroes.
This posting was originally published June 27, 2012. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing

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