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!
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:
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.