It was January. I was in the midst of a brutal winter, feeling like a sloth, and looking for a way to kick myself out of a funk when I registered for the 100-mile Ride to Cure Diabetes in Sonoma, California. The ride would be in June. I had five months to train and raise the money. I figured the fund-raising element would insure my commitment and the location—wine country—would take me to a mystical land I’d only dreamed of. Plus, my niece has dealt with type 1 diabetes since she was three, so fund-raising for the cause was a no-brainer.
The course terrain and elevations were noted on the website but they meant nothing to me. I’m from Chicago. I don’t know 200 feet from 800 feet. That’s climber-speak. I focused on the description: rolling hills to the Pacific Ocean and back. Awesome. So I raised the funds with surprising ease and added Saturday morning bike rides to my weekly workouts. By the big day, I was feeling good.
I expected to find a mass of riders when I arrived, but this was different. Just eighty participants. We met during cocktails at our host hotel, which would serve as our start and finish line and the next day at 7 a.m., amid a slight chill and some fog, we headed out on our bikes, ready to face our challenge, which included a predicted heat wave. With names and home cities on our backs, we chatted and joked—until we hit the first hill.
The climb was mild at first. I lowered the gears, leaned in, and with relative good humor began my inner Ellen DeGeneres voice as Dory the fish from Finding Nemo and chanted her “just keep swimming” mantra to propel my feet forward. My breathing soon got loud and deep and short. I focused on slowing it down. But I marveled at my legs; they felt strong.
After about a half mile of climbing, we experienced the prize for all the pain: a huge descent. This was as new to me as these hills. I flew down the hill through a mass of woods that opened into barren grasses, peppered with trees and rocks. Then we saw more hills. Big ones. “Hills” began to seem like a bad description. We had to get over them to get to the ocean. As the incline began, I lowered the gears again. My Nemo chant soon died as my labored breathing prevented coherent words from escaping.
We turned another corner. More hills. My thighs burned. The incline increased. I headed around another corner. The climb continued. I caught up to a couple of women and we shared our agony as we neared the first rest stop. The sun was getting higher in the sky and our pleasant morning weather was disappearing. We had gone only thirty-five miles. I began wondering if I’d make it. But we could now see a glimmer of the ocean. After a brief break, we headed out and enjoyed a spectacular view as we coasted down miles and miles of mountainous terrain.
We eventually got to the ocean, but it seemed just moments later (though I’m guessing it was an hour) we turned away from the water and faced more hills. We had cycled for fifty miles. The heat was increasing. Riders scattered, the chatter stopped, and I powered on.
The hills got steeper. After reaching the top of one at what felt like a snail’s pace, I clocked in at thirty-four miles per hour during the descent. I pictured my body hurling off in the distance because of a pothole, tree branch or wild animal hopping into my path. The road began to turn and curve and I squeezed the handbrakes so long my hands cramped. Even with full brakes, I continued down at twenty-five mph. I couldn’t look around. I couldn’t enjoy the scenery. I was terrified. I was wondering how my kids would handle it if I died here. I thought about my husband and how he would cope, and the last conversation we had, and if they’d be strong or if they’d all fall apart.
The road leveled off and I entered a valley of trees, ponds, and grazing livestock. I found myself chatting to the animals I passed. “Helloooooo!” I offered in my best Billy Crystal from City Slickers impression. But before too long, the landscape widened, the trees and animals disappeared, and I saw a barren road, shining in the sunshine. A solitary climb up a desolate hill lay ahead. “You’ve got this,” I said to myself. My tone began to change. “You’ve got this!” I insisted. “You’ve—GOT—THIS!” By the middle of the incline, I was barely moving, heaving and sweating and beginning to feel the tingle of chills.
I stopped, drank water, and looked behind me. I was alone. No riders, no trees, no flowers. It was surreal, as if I was on a foreign planet where the sun beat down on every living thing until it died. Crazy thoughts started to pop into my head. What would happen if I rode downhill through this open field? Would anyone find me? What if I keeled over right here?
I slowly made my way to the top and, at last, salvation came yet again. I rolled down a long open road, came upon a few farms and before too long, another rest stop. I’d made it over sixty miles. The temperature had reached 105. As I refilled, ate, stretched, and sat in the tent-made shade, a confidence stirred. I was here, I could still walk.
I continued with another rider–Tom, from New Mexico, as I found out. He led the way as we endured more hills. And then flat terrain. And then brutal, hot wind. It was deserted landscape. We made a turn at the top of an incline, found shade, and stopped to rejoice the end of that stretch. I learned about Tom’s kids, one with type 1, his group of riders, now scattered, and his status as a fellow first-timer.
A support vehicle pulled up to check on us. The temperature had just reached 114. Several riders had quit. We poured water over our heads and pressed on. At close to the eighty mile mark, there was another rest stop. We tasted sweet, juicy strawberries and draped ice-cold towels around our necks. We would not go down.
At mile ninety, we pulled into the final rest stop. Volunteers clapped and hooted and grabbed our bikes as we arrived, draped cold towels over us, and put us in chairs. We were beaten down. We ate the sweetest watermelon ever grown on planet Earth and refilled our bottles. But we got up quickly, afraid that our legs would seize up if we stopped for too long. We were only eleven miles from the finish.
Tom got far ahead of me on an open road and I became overwhelmed with the urge to stop. To collapse on the side of the road. Forever. I desperately wanted the pain to stop. But I didn’t.
Another rider began talking to me. I could barely respond. I just listened and peddled and prayed for the end. And then I saw it. A giant red barn that stood next to the finish line. A little girl with diabetes brought me a metal. I smiled and laughed at the pain while thinking, “Never again.” I’d slain the dragon but was ravaged from the battle.
I returned to my family the next morning and fell back into my summer routine of play dates and swim meets and barbeques with neighbors–all the joys of summer. And I began to think about the thrill and power and joy I felt when I flew down that first hill, the elation of enduring, surviving, finishing, and the friendship and bond created through struggle. And I began dreaming of when I would do it again.