Imagine riding 545 miles in seven days.
Most would agree that the visual or thought does not conjure up feelings of euphoria, excitement, connectedness or a forever changed perspective. Yet this was the experience I and over 2200 other riders and another 800+ roadies and staff shared in during AIDS/LifeCycle 11, which is the world's largest HIV/AIDS Fundraiser, challenging bike riders to raise a minimum of $3000 and cycle 545 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles in seven days.
Now in its 19th year, AIDS/LifeCycle has raised more than $98 million for HIV/AIDS services benefiting the people in California. This year's ride raised over $12.6 million to benefit so many in need of treatment and education to continue to fight the stigma and spread of HIV and AIDS.
My experience, which was so moving that I am "forever changed for the better," as Elpheba and Glinda would say from "Wicked".
Please allow me to share a little perspective first. I am a seasoned triathlete and endurance enthusiast. Yet 545 miles is 545 miles! That is beyond anything I have ever done in my life, and rest assured I have done a lot in my 35 years.
I trained diligently for about four months. This included two spin classes a week, long rides (think three to six hours or 50-90 miles a day) on Saturday and Sunday, and going to the gym five times a week for strength training, cross training, swimming, running, and/or the elliptical.
Now you can only imagine how fun it is to train and ride that much. You have to get to bed early on Friday and Saturday to avoid morning traffic and crazy drivers for the following morning's ride. You learn to get lost in your own head and thoughts since it is not safe to bike with headphones. It is just you and your bike. Luckily I had a great training partner who would also be doing the ride. Together we battled through sleep deprivation, hills, wind and honking car horns (got to love those drivers) to name a few, but we also took in amazing sights, sunrises and landscapes along with a few other riders and friendly smiles from those rare and occasional early weekend morning risers.
Unfortunately I was not able to train with my team (Team Mary, who are AMAZING!) since most of them are based in and around the Bay Area, aka San Francisco.
They were an awesome and fun team. They trained together, organized socials, participated in and won a sloshball/kickball tournament, and formed true, lasting friendships. Our team captain and leader even secured incredible sponsors that enabled us to have the most creative and eye catching team jerseys for just about every day of the ride. Collectively Team Mary raised almost $150,000 for AIDS/LifeCycle 11.
Team Mary also trained diligently in preparation for the ride, sharing in my "pleasure" of many hours riding in the saddle. The joy (not really) of toughening up the area where we sit on our seat/saddle . . . yes that area you are thinking of . . . is not fun. Ouch!
Thankfully I was graciously outfitted with some amazing cycling shorts, bibs, jerseys, gloves, helmet and sunglasses from Performance Bicycle, the top specialty bicycle retailer in the U.S. These items are essential equipment for any type of cycling, especially when prepping and riding 545 miles. To purchase and learn more about the gear, including Ultra, Louis Garneau, and Scattante, visit their website at www.performancebike.com
Now more about the ride . . .
Day 0: Orientation Day - Saturday, June 2, 2012
This is an official event, but not a day of riding.
It was bike drop off, packet pickup, logistics, safety video and meet everyone day.
Can you say excited and nervous all in one?
Today was the first day I was able to meet my team, Team Mary. WOW! What an amazing group of 29 members . . . friendly, vocal, bonded, engaging and dedicated to the cause. Some were veterans and some were newbies brought onto the team by the veterans.
An interesting note about Team Mary is that new riders are officially Virgin Marys and are christened with a name (girl’s name for the males and boy’s name for the females) that reflects the individual’s personality in a fun way.
For instance a few names included Mary Charlotte (Sex and the City), Mary Martha Stewart, Mary Kelly Clarkson, Mary Betty Ford, Mary Nikki Minaj, Mary Chelsea Handler, Mary Kramer, Mary Tony Little, and now me, Mary Suzanne Somers.
Did I hear you say you need a thigh master?
Day 1: San Francisco to Santa Cruz 82.5 miles
Ok here we go, only 82.5 miles for the first day. Way to ease us in . . . LOL . . . The day started out after Opening Ceremonies, which both energized and moved many as the reality of the ride and cause sunk in amongst the excitement to get started.
It was an emotional feeling being part of something bigger than myself and sharing that with all 3000+ participants and supporters. Plus there was the connection with a new team all outfitted uniformly. We were united in our attention grabbing team Mary Lou Retton jerseys, which provided the feeling of support and camaraderie embodied by Team Mary.
So off we went as a team on our journey to Santa Cruz.
I was able to talk with various teammates throughout the ride, learning about similarities, connections and reasons we rode this year. I was also able to ride in silence and reflect on the experience and my feelings so far.
Although our team was separated at times, I always felt connected to them through our mutual support for the cause and our unifying jerseys. We would reunite throughout the ride, on the course, at one of four daily rest stops, lunch, dinner and camp.
I could go on and on about each and every rest stop. Talk about entertainment, support, hotties, shows, photo ops and all you can eat food, drinks, fruits and bars to refuel and reenergize. There were even graham cracker peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, affectionately referred to as crack sandwiches. Yes, they were that good and addicting that we riders were looking for them at every rest stop.
The first day was one of triumph, beautiful weather and views, a much-appreciated tail wind and a willingness and readiness to tackle Day Two.
Day 2: Santa Cruz to King City 109.2 miles
Luckily Day 1 was so great, because Day 2 brought out some nasty, wet and cold weather that forced the closure of the route by midday. A brave 300 riders were able to complete the ride, while others huddled together at churches, schools, and other areas providing shelter. However that would not dampen the spirits and mood of the many riders. It simply became a time to have a Mylar fashion show, showcasing the metallic insulating blankets used to keep us warm.
I was grateful to have been one of the 300 riders to complete the ride, proud of the 12 other Team Mary riders who made it to the end and inspired by the fifteen Team Mary riders who rode as far as the weather would permit. The team rallied to assist one another, keep each other warm and get everyone to safety. This was a true team!
The day’s ride and challenges were well worth the effort. The vineyards and strawberry and artichoke fields were a beautiful sight. The entertainment by the Otter Pop Stop guys and the tasty homemade cookies by the Cookie Lady provided the laughs, support, and energy to persevere.
These experiences, although not the most enjoyable in the moment, create the memories that bond riders to each other, the roadies, the staff and the cause.
Day 3: King City to Paso Robles 66.7 miles
Ok, now the weather was back on track, and we were all itching to get back on our bikes. Good thing we were so pumped because today is also known as QUADBUSTER. So named for a long incline, some might even refer to it as a small mountain that toasts your legs and quads in the early part of the ride.
Can you believe some, including me, did this hill twice and some even multiple times (one of our own Team Mary members)? Why might you ask? It is a way to support and cheer on so many riders. The encouragement goes a long way as the hill takes no prisoners. Our fearless team captain/leader rang his cowbell, motivating us along the way. This became a familiar sound that Team Mary recognized, appreciated and understood to be perpetual support.
Day 4: Paso Robles to Santa Maria 97.7 miles - Half Way to LA
As we prepare to ride almost another century (100 miles in one day), we are fortunate to be blessed and wearing our Sister Mary jerseys. Her blessings were appreciated as today requires riders to conquer the Evil Twins.
What are the Evil Twins? They are two successive monster hills that make you feel as if you are not moving at all and if you don’t keep peddling you are surely to fall over. Side note, some of us actually refers to them as the Evil Triplets or an extra Evil Step Sister, because there is a third not so friendly hill as well.
And yes, they are evil! Steep and long are not what you want on a ride. Maybe somewhere else, but not here.
However, the stunning vista and ocean views make the experience more than worth the effort. Not to mention the continual support from other riders, support staff, roadies, and cheers of family and friends along the route.
A major highlight of the day is Half Way to LA point. It is at the top of the second Sister Hill and offers a vista to take a photo with your team and/or yourself with your bike over your head. Of course we took the opportunity. Who doesn’t like a photo? It also felt great to know we were halfway through our journey. It was a tremendous feeling to have everyone from Team Mary together for the photo.
Yet we couldn’t rest too long as we still had a lot of miles to cover.
The day was a blast, but the night only held more excitement. Tomorrow would be red dress day, and Team Mary would be fully prepared to represent.
We worked into the night in preparation for tomorrow’s memorable day. Together by flashlight and lantern we attached, styled, and hair sprayed wigs to our helmets. We already had various, fabulous red dresses, but we needed just the right look to embody the one and only Tina Turner in her famous song "Proud Mary."
Day 5: Santa Maria to Lompoc 42 miles
Wow, aren’t we a sexy bunch?!?! Don’t be jealous.
Today is the shortest but one of the most fun days. It is tradition to wear your red best for AIDS awareness and the outfits, costumes and attire would blow your mind. I know I was impressed, shocked and loving every moment.
There were many unique red clothes. Some individuals dressed in red tights, shorts, dresses, skirts, socks and capes to show their support. There was Team Funky Monkey dressed as Mormon missionaries in red dress shirts, black nameplates, black shorty shorts and ties. There was even a team dolled up in red gowns and crowns reflecting "Toddlers and Tiaras."
I was especially pleased with Team Mary who came out of camp together in various Tina Turner red dresses with her famous big hair. I think we gave her a run for her money in the looks and legs department.
Go Proud Mary Go!
One of the most amazing sights of the day and the week was to see the red ribbon bicycle parade. As you traveled up and down hills, you could see the long red "ribbon" of so many cyclists in red attire. It was a true testament to the cause, the AIDS red ribbon and the spirit of the event.
Day 6: Lompoc to Ventura 83.3 miles
Today was all around one of the most beautiful for a variety of experiences.
The scenery: Traveling on US101 through Gaviota Pass and into Santa Barbara was breathtaking. The ocean, the water and the beaches were spectacular. The weather was so nice, and with the sun shining the entire day it was a perfect tanning day. Although on such a busy stretch of road it was imperative to keep focused for everyone’s safety and enjoyment.
The residents of Santa Barbara: The rest stop hosted by the city of Santa Barbara was unparalleled. They were so appreciative of the cause and the riders that they provided an ’all you can eat’ ice cream buffet, complete with a huge assortment of toppings, numerous fresh baked cookies, brownies and other treats plus a variety of fresh cut fruit. This provided the incentive to get to the stop but also made it hard to leave. Alas, there was more road to cover and more wonderful views to see before day’s end with a final campsite right on San Buenaventura State Beach.
The beach silent candle light vigil: Towards the end of the evening, everyone was given a lit candle and walked together towards the beach. Along the beach we gathered to sit or stand and reflect on the ride, our experience, our connection to the cause, AIDS, HIV and the impact it has on us and the world. There were tears in my eyes, emotions in my heart and shared connections with 3000 others. It was a truly moving and beautiful sight to see so many lit candles in honor of so many. Slowly people began to walk to the ocean and extinguish their flame. It was a moment we will never forget.
Day 7: Ventura to Los Angeles 60 miles
Today is the final day!
We would ride along the coast on a spectacular day, making our way through Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Malibu and finally into Santa Monica for Closing Ceremonies.
Team Mary had one final jersey to unite us and that was our Mary Tyler Moore jersey. Although we were separated as a team at times today, we were united by our jerseys and the cheers of others. We regrouped about one mile out and rode in together as one behind a founding member.
It was a memorable and moving experience.
It was a celebration.
It was a time of happiness.
It was a time of sadness.
It was a time of reflection.
It was also an opportunity to sign up again for next year. I and many others could not imagine missing this next year.
Final Thoughts . . .
As individuals we came together as a team to cycle 545 miles. We came from separate coasts. We came for different reasons. But we all finished. We all experienced something that would greatly affect us forever. Many of us will be back next year to enjoy the challenge, the unity, the movement, and the cause, and once again be moved and changed forever.
"I have been changed for good."
Hopefully you were moved in reading about my experience.
If you would like to contribute to AIDS/LifeCycle 12 please go to www.aidslifecycle.org
If you would like to support me or Team Mary next year go to www.aidslifecycle.org and search for participant Kyle Washburn or Team Mary.