We roll through the Hudson Valley (Bike ride recap!)

All the anxiety, all of the mental and physical preparation, and whoosh – the day came and went.

Friday night, we had dinner at J’s parents house and left the kids there to spend the night. We got home around 9 pm, aiming for a 10 pm bedtime. Which we managed, pretty much, except by then we’d decided that we’d need to be up by 4:30 am. So we weren’t going to get much sleep.

We were up at 4:30 (okay, maybe it took us a few minutes longer) and got our stuff together quickly. I took my dose of Tafinlar at 5, much earlier than usual, because it has a three hour fast on either side of it, and I knew I wouldn’t want that to impede fueling up for my ride.

We took a couple of bananas (turned out they were uncomfortably ripe) and I made us each a PB&J to eat on the ride. I knew there would be breakfast at the ride, so I packed some mixed nuts and a bunch of the kids’ fruit leathers to ride with, and that was it.

Then J went out to get our bikes on the new car rack. We’d tried it out last weekend, with all four bikes, and it had gone fine. This morning, I think the nerves got to J. Once both bikes were strapped in, he was assailed by doubts, and wondered if the whole thing wasn’t too loose. I was standing there trying not to implode from stress. It got later and later. Finally, J decided the bikes were secure, and we were on our way. I kept an eye on both bikes in the rear view mirror almost the whole time.

I’d been hoping to get to the ride at 6:30. We didn’t start out until after 5:30, and it was more than an hour away. It felt good to leave the city though – whenever we cross the Triboro Bridge and head in either one of the directions that take you north, it feels exciting. (Especially if it is early enough that you don’t hit a solid wall of traffic in the Bronx!)

En route, I texted S, a friend from my early days of motherhood, who now lives upstate. We hadn’t been in touch for a couple of months. I figured she might not live too far from the finish line, and it was worth a shot to see whether she could make it. To my happy surprise, she seemed amenable to it! And J’s parents would be meeting us at the finish line too, with the boys.

But all of those happy reunions would be hours away. Little did we know how many hours. When we got to the venue we had no idea where to park – luckily spaces were available across the street, rather than at the designated event lot that was almost two miles down the road. There were waivers to sign before we could get our jerseys. We had to change into our jerseys, release the bikes from the rack, get sunblock on, and scramble over to the start. We saw breakfast laid out, and it looked lovely – quiche, Greek yogurt, fruit – but all we had time to grab was half of a giant blueberry muffin to share. Forget coffee. At least we’d eaten those bananas!

The 100 milers set off, and then the 50 milers, and then suddenly, it was our turn. We got in the very back of the chute and I’m pretty sure we were the last to start!

The moment I crossed the starting line, I got a little teary. I’d been thinking about this ride for a long time, training for it, and to cross the start line, even, was huge. I soon got over it, because we were entering the West Point military installation, and I knew I’d probably not have many other chances to see it. It’s a stunningly beautiful campus, many historic buildings, and I noticed the library as we passed (also gorgeous). Suddenly, a hill came up and smacked us in the face like a wave. It went up and up. And that was just the start of the ride!

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High points, low points.

Once we left West Point, we had a little respite, but then the hills really began (see first circle, above). We saw other riders stopped on the first big hill for photo ops, so we joined in:

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Fresh from the starting line.
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Majestic Hudson Valley

None of the things I had spent so much mental energy worrying about came to pass. I didn’t fall off my bike. I didn’t have trouble starting again when we stopped on a hill. No major components fell off my bike (although a reflector attached to one pedal became very loose and rattled and drove me a little nuts). In the days before the ride, I’d been congested and worried I’d wake up the day of the ride too sick to go. But I was fine. Completely fine.

Once we’d been through the first big hill, I had a better sense of what the hills would be like. The trainer I worked with, Joanna, had advised that a good strategy for long hills was to not look up. When she said that, I imagined a big hill rising above me, like a wall. But what there really was, of course, were endless twists and turns, hills rising around and out of sight so you couldn’t predict where the top was, and if you did try to predict, you were wrong.

I suppose if I’d gone to the trouble of mounting my phone on my bike, I could have had an app tell me when the big hills were coming, but perhaps that would not have been as fun. I would have missed everything I saw. Small towns and stone walls and oddly, a solar phone charger in the middle of nowhere with an unseen person’s phone hooked up to it. Birds of prey circling as we took a rest stop, prompting us to look alive. Also, on the Storm King Highway, cars zipping around blind curves at 50 mph. (In the morning while J had been racking the bikes, our neighbor passed by walking his dogs and when we told him about the ride, he mentioned that he likes taking the Storm King Highway curves in his BMW. So I guess we’d been warned!)

Instead of looking at my phone, while I pumped hard to get up those hills, I thought of Kate, my sister in melanoma blogging, who died in April. I am profoundly sad that the advances in treatment to date fell short of what she needed. And I also thought of another friend who will soon begin immunotherapy treatment for a different type of cancer. Grief and hope in equal measures.

J rode with me, but he’s taller and stronger than I am, so what that meant was, he rode ahead and checked back every so often to make sure I was there. I sang camp songs to self-motivate. One about how the world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is to have no fear. To amuse myself, I remembered the first time the world got to see Kermit the Frog riding a bicycle, with unseen strings pulling him along, in The Muppet Movie.

At the rest stops, we gorged on strawberries and peaches and drank Gatorade and marveled at all the local people who had come out to help with the ride. We also met another rider, a woman originally from Poland, who has had cancer run rampant through her family. Her mother died of lymphoma, which seemed connected to Chernobyl. We rode together for a little while.

There were many SAG vehicles, and more than once, they seemed to be riding my tail, making me think we were the last ones out on the road. Not literally the case, of course, but we certainly took our time. The last hill was murder – on a stretch of road that was not shaded, and at high noon. J soldiered on, but I finally gave up and walked for a piece. Then a SAG wagon showed up and they refilled my almost-empty water bottle, and that gave me the push I needed.

The end of the ride was amazing, dramatic – we got to ride on a highway, with one lane blocked off for us, then up the exit ramp and back into the town of Highland Falls. The steep descent to the finish was precipitous, crazy fun. I felt as though I were playing one of the video games the kids like. I stood on my brakes at times, making them squeal and almost smelling burnt rubber. The broken pavement added to the adventure. By the time we rolled up to the finish, about five hours after we’d started, I was exhilarated and exhausted. Seeing the kids and J’s parents, with a “GREAT JOB” sign and huge smiles, made me cry all over again. We were officially photographed. S arrived and I gave her a big, sweaty hug. Then J & I got massages and ate great food and heard a good band and drank beer and wine and S & I caught up a bit at last. I even got to take a shower! And the kids bounced in a bouncy house three times the size of our apartment.

The announcer at the finish line said I was a cancer survivor. I’m sure that was meant well. It isn’t quite accurate, though – not from my standpoint. I still take medication. I am still being monitored closely with scans, and anytime something weird happens, I call the oncologist first. It may be a long time before I lay claim to the title of survivor. As Mary Elizabeth Williams‘ doctor told her, “You can call yourself a cancer survivor when you die of something else.” And don’t call me a warrior, please. I take pills and I get scans. That’s not exactly jiu-jitsu.

If I’m not a survivor, then I find what I accomplished yesterday difficult to label in an easy way. Surprise, surprise – I have always deflected easy categorization. What it was, was this: I survived a tough bike ride, one year after brain metastases and gamma knife surgery. The lungs which once had tumors in them are now free of them – thanks to cancer immunotherapy – and they helped me get up and down some brutal hills without quitting. That’s what happened yesterday.

But also – more than a hundred donors to our fundraiser showed us their love and support, and stated with their donations that they, too, hope for a future where cancer once and for all stops its ruthless march.

Although the ride is now over, fundraising continues through the summer. If you’ve been thinking of giving, you still have a chance.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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Brief contemplative message

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The sky is falling. I am learning to live with it. By John Lurie (www.johnlurieart.com)

I did something very unusual this afternoon, as the school year for the kids ebbed into its final hours, and then its final minutes. I had a lot of prep to do for their special last day of school dinner (their fave, a chicken & broccoli & mushroom stir fry, which requires a lot of chopping).

I had watched, earlier in the day, the beginning of the historic sit-in for gun control legislation in the House of Representatives. I was stirred by John Lewis’ words, and I sensed this was some Grade A political theater.

When it came time to chop veggies I propped my laptop on the counter, and I kept watching. To say I have been disengaged from politics in this election year is an understatement. But I cannot stand by and watch mass murder after mass murder happen on my watch. Some of the speakers today stayed on message, some of them did not. A letter from Gabby Giffords, a victim of gun violence who has started her own organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, was read on the House floor.

By the end of the day, I wasn’t sure where the sit-in might lead, and I’ve had to stop following it closely, in favor of family time. My heart hurts, my brain is fried. And I don’t want any more bullets sprayed into any more bodies.

Tonight, John Lurie posted a new image of one of his paintings on Facebook, and it just slayed me. Such a perfect encapsulation of the current mood. Such a perfect shade of blue.

Summer

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A Kernel, by David Woo on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I’m pushing aside the things I need to do right now. Just for a few minutes I will enjoy the serenity of my bedroom, the door to the balcony open to birdsong.

The weekend was cuckoo bananas, wall-to-wall fun. We were catapulted into summer:

Lemonade stand:

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Money proceeds
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Right over here!!

block party, outdoor concert, Father’s Day, school picnic, bike ride:

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Jamaica Bay, from Floyd Bennett Field

AND to top it off, a barbecue.

I love summer. I always have. I love the heat, the humidity, the loud hum of a field full of insects… and the bright, endless sun.

It just isn’t fun for me anymore. Sometimes I dread leaving the house, when there is bright sun. And there will always be sun.

For most of my life, sun was no problem at all, it was a treat. Sunscreen applied in a perfunctory way, and bare shoulders and a pair of cheap sunglasses. I recall dragging a lounge chair out of the garage to the backyard and lying out. I cannot believe what a terrible idea that was. And yet, according to my surgeon, the damage was not done in adolescence, but earlier. All those peeling sunburns as a kid. And who knows? Maybe the UV light I logged time under as a jaundiced newborn.

I can’t really enjoy the bare shoulders anymore. I still bare them, but now there is a sense of danger. I’m exposing myself needlessly. I may as well take up smoking or chewing tobacco, when I’m out in the sun with skin exposed. When I’m walking in the city, it becomes a race from shade to shade, crossing the street at inconvenient places, just to stay out of the sun. Swimming is less fun, now that I have to wear a shirt while doing it. A shirt that feels okay in the water, but when I come out, clings to all the wrong spots, not unlike plastic wrap.

I hate the panic I’m necessarily instilling in my children about the sun. Especially the one who is paler and who freckles like I do. I hate bringing up issues of mortality while I apply sunblock to his writhing, uncooperative limbs. I hate how much good sunblock costs. How it will undoubtedly ooze from the tube or bottle I send in each kid’s backpack to summer camp, covering everything with zinc-y sludge, but only if it doesn’t get lost on the very first day of camp.

But I still love summer, and the sun. It’s just that my love has gotten more complex – fraught, tinged with resentment, concerned with the need to protect myself. I’m guarded. But I know that one day very soon, I will hit a sweet spot, I will be wearing plenty of sunscreen and a hat I don’t hate and I’ll have a summery drink in my hand and J will too, and a light breeze will caress my bare shoulders while the kids, properly sunblocked and behatted, are off playing at a distance.  Then I will have a moment of ease, and forget that that feeling used to last for three months.

Orlando (and the failure of amusement)

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rainbow maker, by frankieleon on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Once again, I am angry, devastated, and unsettled. Once again I want to grab a thousand lawmakers and lobbyists by the lapels and demand that they back down, back off, disarm. We are a continent of lead, awash in blood. How much longer will I be able to conceal the true horror of it from my kids? If they knew what happens here every day, every hour, they would probably never sleep again.

Or would they, as we do, assimilate this somehow as part of their everyday reality? In the absence of a nationwide uprising against our current situation, this is what those of us whose lives have somehow failed to have a ragged hole cut through them in the latest outrage seem to do.

As I did, yesterday, with my family. We headed to an amusement park for the day, with J’s nephew. It was a beautiful, warm, breezy day. People had died and been injured horribly overnight, but not close to where we were, so it was possible to do such a thing.

I think that the sinister event cast a shadow over the park, or maybe it was my thought overlay, as I looked around. There were staff everywhere in orange t-shirts, but I noticed none of them seemed to be security guards, save for two guys we only saw when we were leaving. And scores and scores of families queuing up for their next go-round on the next gravity-defying experience. I noticed at a certain point that many of the rides came from Germany (which felt creepy to me), and on the haunted house ride, one of the last we rode, there was a faded banner with the name of the ride in German, “Der Rickscha,” and a pervasive smell of mold as Young A and I sat in the dark in our rickshaw, pulled by a zombie with a black bag over its head, whipped around hairpin turns to horrors that were more annoying and ridiculous (except for the blood-curdling screams, those really were awful).

There were flying swings, which are my favorite ride, but the park is crammed into such a small space, they didn’t give the feeling of soaring, and it was hard to shed the idea I might smack into sign posts or other rides. I closed my eyes for a bit, that made it better.

I rode a kiddie roller coaster with Young J and Young A, but it wasn’t quite junior enough for me. I closed my eyes there too, which helped a little, but mostly, I felt myself click into Endurance Mode, something I’ve developed for use when called every two months into the tunnel for my brain MRI. This wasn’t a medical exam, though. I had opted to do this for fun! And it wasn’t remotely fun. I was enduring it and trying to gauge how Young A was handling it. He looked terrified by the end, but perhaps not, because by evening he said it was one of the best rides he’d been on all day. He is one complicated little dude.

The best ride of the day, for me, was J and I sitting in the back of an antique car while the kids sat in front and pretended to drive. A ride that was charming and mindless and most importantly, not trying to thrill us, not even a little bit.

Secret weapon

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A pause by the lake

I wasn’t sure, when I started training for the big bike ride I have coming up, that I really needed professional help training for it. I’ve been riding for a long time, after all, and I did the Five Borough Bike Tour once, and all I did to train for that was ride the steep hills in Riverside Park in very high gear.

But guess what? It turns out that over the years, any number of fears, real or imagined ones, crept into my riding. So when a friend mentioned a trainer that she’d worked with for triathlon conditioning, I did think about it for a second. Then Thrifty Brain took over and said nah, just get the miles in. So I did that for a little while, donning my trusty 20 year old bike shorts, which now provided about the same amount of padding as a panty liner (the vestigial kind, for “light” days), a fanny pack with my necessities, and my clunky stainless steel water bottle rattling around in its cage.

And then, I saw the route profile. Which told me that riding the shortest distance of the three available wasn’t necessarily going to be the easiest. The little diagram helpfully hinted at a total elevation of “~2,379 feet” – as in, “approximate, we’re not quite sure, the last person in charge of measuring it passed out while climbing the last huge hill.” This was turning out to be more than I bargained for, and I realized if I didn’t get some solid advice, I was probably going to bomb this ride.

So I got in touch with that trainer, Joanna Paterson of Bodiesynergy. I spoke with her first on the phone and she seemed direct, professional, and very, very knowledgeable. By which I mean that she wasn’t trying to do more than I needed. She understood that I’m training for this ride for a very specific reason – because cancer immunotherapy is in part responsible for my being on the surface of the earth instead of beneath it – and she got that I wasn’t trying to turn into a triathlete. As a bonus, she is a native of New Zealand and has a great Kiwi accent.

We made a date for the park. Before that date, I needed to acquire proper biking clothes. I went to a shop in Park Slope, where I heard someone call my name. It was P, the wife of M, whom I met in my librarian job ages ago. I’d seen plenty of photos of her on Facebook. We’d never met, but she’d read my blog before, which made me feel like a minor celeb. She was lovely, and she helped me choose clothes. I began to realize something that Joanna told me more concretely at the end of our session today – that not only have I improved my skills, I’ve also started to create a community – the people riding in the park, the people who work at the bike shops. (She’s right. Last week when I went to get a ticking sound looked at at a different shop closer to my house, Ricky, the guy who rescued my ancient bike from decrepitude a couple years ago by upgrading crucial components, remembered me.)

I bought those new biking clothes about two hours before meeting Joanna for our first session. I put them on at home, feeling like a total poseur. This feeling was magnified by what happened while I was riding to the park to meet her. For the first time, EVER, I failed to check the crosswalk was totally clear before I started up from a red light, and I rolled into a pedestrian. I didn’t knock her down. She may or may not have been wearing white pants. I was mortified! I rode to the park beet red, and as soon as Joanna and I had shaken hands, I burst into tears. She handled it with aplomb, and smartly encouraged me to get off my bike until I’d collected myself.

At our first session, I learned a lot about gearing and how to not run out of gears on a hill (at least, not on the modest hill in our nearby park). I learned how to hold my line (aka not zigzag all over the road). Joanna showed me how to drink while riding (my subsequent practices on that skill, including one time when I almost knocked over another rider, left me feeling it was a bridge too far for me at this stage). And she raised my saddle to the appropriate height for someone like me, who is about 80% legs. I have such tremendous leg power while riding now, it’s pretty amazing.

Joanna gave me homework after that session – three workouts, including one of hill repeats and one of six or seven laps of the park, with the third one being my choice of the other two. A strange thing happened though – with the higher saddle, I began to dread getting on or off my bike. Towards the end of my first six-lap workout, I both fell over when stopping to get water, and somehow forgot how to stop and dismount the bike when I finished (I eventually figured it out). I’d been riding dehydrated, because I was too afraid to stop!

I decided to schedule another session with Joanna this week, to focus exclusively on starting and stopping and turning (something else I suddenly forgot how to do, after I’d fallen over that time). I was letting my fears grow gigantic, and this was not the way I wanted to go into the big ride.

Today we met in a sunny and very windy park, and Joanna drilled me on starting and stopping. She didn’t force me to change my way of pushing off, just suggested things to pay attention to when I was doing it. She did offer solid advice on downshifting before you stop, so you don’t get caught on an incline stopped in a high gear. And she made me practice turns in both directions. All throughout she encouraged me and guided me. I think we finally released all the butterflies today.

I’ve been extremely lucky through this cancer ordeal, meeting people who have a fantastically unique and adept way of tweaking my perspective. Working with Joanna is the latest example. I’m going into the big ride with a secret weapon: The Kiwi-accented voice in my head. It’s telling me to “cape piddling,” “hold your loin,” and it’s going to get me up some pretty steep hills, the steepness of which Joanna has told me not to look at as I climb, as a tactic for making it all the way up.

I’ve never been much of a long-range planner, so that last piece of advice should suit me just fine…

To donate to our fundraising effort for the Answer to Cancer bike ride, please visit our team page. Every amount helps us get to our goal. Donations can come in until September 1. Thank you so much!!

Nerve(s)

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1964 Ad, Miles Nervine Tablets, Capsules, Liquid for Calming Nerves, Young Housewife Burns Muffins

We’re less than three weeks away from the big bike ride. Last week, I hardly rode at all. But this morning, I saw how gorgeous a day it was shaping up to be, and I knew I’d need to get out there. One thing led to another, though, and I didn’t leave the house until noon. I still managed to get out and do six laps of the park (a shade over 21 miles).

I’m no longer at all intimidated by the actual riding. But getting on and off my bike (with the new seat height) continues to stress me out. Today, I noticed I was more steady when I did so, but I still get very anxious about it – enough that I find myself continuing to pedal when I really should take a break.

Obviously, being successful in the ride will mean knowing when to stop and drink and eat, not plowing through all 25 miles at once because I’m afraid of falling off my bike when I stop! I know it’s all practice, and it was reassuring to see that I was in better shape today. I’m meeting the trainer on Thursday to work some more on my starting and stopping, and see if she has any final words of wisdom for me. Just the one session I had with her so far improved my biking immeasurably.

While I was riding today, I thought about times in my life that I accomplished physical feats that I hadn’t dreamed I could, until I did. Birthing very large babies. Running a half marathon. Teaching myself to kayak better one summer, when I had unlimited access to one. Biking 42 miles through all five boroughs of New York City. And, most spectacularly and going way, way back, teaching myself at age nine or ten how to do a flip off the diving board, after watching a friend’s diving lesson, and then, after doing flips from the low dive a bunch of times, deciding I was ready to flip from the high dive. (Turns out you don’t actually stop flipping once you start, because of the laws of physics, which I had not yet learned in school. I did a massive belly flop and when I came out of the water, the lifeguard who asked if I was okay was pale under his tan.)

Nerve is a quality that cannot be underestimated. I couldn’t have done any of these things without it. But the archenemy of nerve happens to be its plural, nerves. So going into this bike ride, I’m hoping to squash the nerves, and rediscover the power of nerve. Nerve is a quality that runs through a few generations in my family. My parents had to have some nerve to leave the land of their birth, to seek better lives elsewhere. (So did my grandparents on my father’s side.) We have a lot of nerve. It has to count for something.