The approach to the 2015 Pan-Mass Challenge was a complicated one for me. Several factors, both within and outside of my control, had a major impact on my training and resolve regarding my participation in the Pan-Mass Challenge this year.
While I usually ride and train year round, the long, cold winter really sapped my motivation. I was not inclined to ride on the trainer as much as I should have during those bleak weeks. I made excuses, justified my lack of indoor activity and, when the snow was finally off the ground in April and it was safe to ride outside, I was traveling so much for work that I found it difficult to take the time to ride and train properly. I knew it was all just a cop out, but I was not able to climb out of that hole.
Then April came around and we learned that Debbie, a wonderful family friend and the God -Mother to my daughter, had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer for which there was no cure. Debbie and her husband Gary were told that the best they could hope for was that treatment would give her more time. This news was a tremendous shock and, once again, made me realize how vulnerable we all are and how awfully insidious this disease is. It can take anyone, at any time regardless of who you are or how healthy you are. Talking with Debbie and Gary and watching how they dealt with her illness with strength and grace was a motivating experience for me. Now I just needed to get onto the bike and train.
Concerned about my lack of conditioning and training finally led me to seek out and hire a coach in May to help whip my rear end into shape. This plan worked well and Scott, who also works at the shop where I bought my bike, was patient but a task master in helping me to get to where I needed to be. We rode most Friday mornings, sometimes doing sprint intervals, sometimes hill work but always working to improve my strength, pace, breathing and endurance. I could feel my old confidence and fitness coming back and started to feel on track for the first week in August and #PMC2015. Then in the few weeks before the event, I got a double whammy.
It was a Sunday afternoon at the end of June and I had just returned from a training ride when we got a call from Gary, Debbie’s husband letting us know that her condition was deteriorating rapidly. They did not expect her to last much longer. We sent love and prayers to her, Gary and their whole family but it was less than 24 hours later that Gary called again to let us know that Debbie had passed. It was a punch in the gut. The loss of such a vibrant, caring and funny person was hard to take. Later that week, Gary and his family held an amazing memorial service, followed by a gathering at their home that allowed us all to celebrate Debbie’s life and share fond memories of her. It was a silver lining to a deep, dark cloud.
I redoubled my resolve for a successful PMC in Debbie’s honor and counted on her being with me on the route. I was starting to feel more confident about the event. That is until the Friday, two weeks before the PMC weekend, when I fell while just starting out on a training ride.
It was a stupid accident and I made a rookie mistake that led to me landing on my shoulder, knocking the wind out me. Initially, I thought I might have injured my wrist and shoulder but, after a few minutes of recovery, I felt good enough to hop back on the bike and head off for a session with Scott. It was clear, though, after twenty miles at a moderate pace, that I needed to get home and calm down. Over the next two days my symptoms became worse and worse and I knew that I had done more than pull a couple of muscles. I had planned a long ride on that Sunday and even had the bike and my kit all ready to go when I agreed with Gail that a trip to the Emergency Room was a better course of action. The initial diagnosis, after exam and X-rays, was a fractured 6th rib on my right side. While at the ER, I told the attending Doctor that I planned to ride in the PMC two weeks later. She just laughed. I did not.
Pain meds and rest helped but I was very uncomfortable, even with the strong medication. A follow-up exam three days later confirmed that it was more likely that at least two ribs had been affected (one in two places) and I had incurred some muscular damage as well. When I thought about PMC weekend being less than ten days away, I started to panic. How could I continue to train without posing significant risk of more injury by going out on the road? But then I remembered my training stand. I could ride indoors with almost no risk of falling and without having to lean over the bars and stretch in places that did not want to be stretched.
My new plan worked and I found that spending time in the saddle on the trainer and getting the blood flowing helped with pain management as well. Less discomfort led to being brave enough to get back out on the road and, over the next week I was able to advance my recovery significantly. Three days prior to PMC weekend I did a 40 mile ride in 95 degree weather and really felt ok. I might actually be able to do it.
My plan for PMC 2015 was to ride once again with my very good friends and team mates from “The Apostles of Rule Five” with whom I have ridden on many occasions over several years including the past five Pan-Mass Challenge rides. These folks are truly wonderful people and excellent riders. They are kind, generous, caring, patient and dedicated people and I am proud to call them friends and lucky to ride with them whenever I can. I was looking forward to our time together over the two days and many miles.
PMC weekend commences on Friday afternoon at about 3pm when the riders can go to the site that is the start of their respective routes and pick up registration packets containing our wrist bands, PMC jerseys and other PMC related goodies. It turned out that there were only six “Apostles” who would ride the Sturbridge to Provincetown route this year and we agreed to meet at the registration facilities to get our stuff, connect and have a pre-ride beer.
Gail and I were pleased that, this year, my five fellow Sturbridge riders had agreed to stay with us in Holliston rather than a hotel closer to the start of the PMC as they had done in the past. The logistics of having everyone together was simpler and gave us confidence in knowing that we would not have to search for each other in the dark and crowded parking lot at the Sturbridge Host Hotel. After we all connected and had a beverage at the PMC start location in Sturbridge, we piled into two cars and headed to Holliston leaving our bicycles corralled with more than 2,000 other bikes so they would be there and ready in the early morning hours of Saturday, August first.
We arrived back in Holliston, unloaded gear for those staying overnight and were greeted by Gail, Meg and Alan, Meg’s husband, who had prepared a carbohydrate loaded feast for us. We had invited Gary, Debbie’s husband, over for the evening as he had no real experience with the PMC and we thought that, being able to meet some other riders and watch the opening ceremonies on TV with us (broadcast live from the hotel in Sturbridge on a major television station) might give Gary a flavor of what the event was all about and what the Pan-Mass Challenge and Dana-Farber can do to help fight cancer.
We were glad that Gary joined us and we all enjoyed a large meal of lasagna, bread, chicken wings, vegetables and salad and then sat down to watch the PMC ceremonies which were very moving and, for those of us who were riding, very motivational. After the conclusion of the ceremonies, we chatted laughed and enjoyed each other’s company but by 9:30 we were all ready to call it an evening. We set alarms for 3:30am and settled down to get what rest we could. Sleep did not come easy for me. How would I feel? Would my side be a problem? Was I really prepared? Too many silly questions ran through my head until about midnight when I finally dozed off.
The alarm rocketed me into awareness at 3:30am as planned. It felt like I had just closed my eyes but now the morning and a long day lay ahead. I swung into full gear making sure that my fellow riders were up and about, getting breakfast on the table (bagels, fruit, peanut butter and lots of coffee) and making sure the car was loaded with all that we would need for the weekend. By shortly after 4:00, we were in the cars and on the way. Alan and Meg had agreed to drive us back to Sturbridge and by the time we arrived just after 5am, the sky was already starting to lighten a bit. We grabbed our bikes, checked tire pressure, made sure we had food and supplies and then, after a beautiful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, a few final remarks from Billy Starr (the founder of PMC) and a couple of photos, we were off for the start of day one. We all hoped that good weather and good luck would be with us for the next several hours and all 110 miles that lay ahead.
Saturday: Sturbridge to Bourne
There were over two thousand cyclists lined up at the start in Sturbridge at 5:30am on Saturday, August 1st and when the countdown concluded with “…three, two, one, GO!” we all inched forward for what would be a 15 minute walk until we could cross the start line and actually be able to pedal forward. However, Neil, our team captain, noticed a few riders moving toward another exit from the parking lot and was able to quickly get our attention and get us on our bikes and we quietly slipped out and onto the road via a “back door”. There is nothing that will kill an adrenaline rush faster than having to wait in a long line and I, personally, was glad to be able to get out on the road and move forward at a reasonable pace even if it was in a slightly unorthodox manner. We were moving.
I rode with the gang for a mile or so and then watched as most of my friends hooked onto a pace line of fast riders and they were gone. I was completely ok with this as it takes me a while to warm up the legs and get into my groove. Saturday was no exception. The first 3 miles were tougher than usual for me despite the fact that the weather was perfect (about 60 degrees: cool and clear) and we had launched well ahead of the huge mob so there was a lot of open space. I was working much harder than I usually do on that terrain and found myself thinking “Am I really going to be able to do 110 miles if I am having this much trouble in the first 4?” The first significant climb occurs at about mile 5, just after a shallow rise and a hard right turn. There is no way to build momentum so this is just a pure grind. I moved to a low gear and just pushed down one pedal stroke after another. When I got near the top and noticed that the apex was in sight, I thought “That could have been worse” and was a little relieved. Maybe I could do this.
I am sure I have mentioned in previous PMC narratives that the morning of the first day is magical. At the risk of being redundant, I will say it again. The air was fresh, the skies were brightening, the back country roads of eastern Massachusetts were calm and the quiet whir of hundreds of chains on gears and tires on roads all combined to create an atmosphere of peace and calm. We riders were focused and content to move ahead one mile at a time and when we passed the occasional supporter by the side of the road with a sign, or a cheer or just a quiet thank you, it was like wind at our backs. We passed large fields with grass swaying under a light breeze, we rode on tree lined streets where shadows dappled the pavement below us, we flew down hills and powered up climbs always mindful of cars, pedestrians and other riders as the distance ahead grew shorter and the miles racked up behind us.
It seemed like no time before I pulled into the first water stop at mile 24. The legs had come alive and I was feeling pretty good. There was no noticeable discomfort from my ribcage which made me very glad. (At the last minute before we launched, I had opted not to wear a compression shirt which would have held my ribs together as I was concerned about the heat.) I heard my name being called and discovered my teammate and friend George had gotten in just before me. We grabbed some food, filled up our bottles with water and Gatorade, then, back on the road again.
Although there are only 17 miles between the Whitinsville and Franklin water stop locations, it is probably the hilliest portion of the course. There are some long medium grade ascents where you just have to put your head down and grind it out as you slowly reach the summit but there are also some fairly steep grades that for ¼ or ½ mile you can either drop to a low gear and spin your way up saving your legs and lungs for later or you can get up out of the saddle and push hard to get over the top as quickly as possible. There are advantages to both of these approaches and you have to think strategically and be able to remember what lies ahead in order for each rider to make the right choice for himself or herself at that time.
Given the start to my day and the lingering anxiety I was still feeling about my capabilities, I opted for the former of these two approaches. This meant that I got passed by a number of people on a few of the ascents, but I bit my tongue and kept telling myself that it was better or me to get passed and be able to finish the day than to push too hard and burn out before 110 miles. Someone once told me “Youth has speed but age has wisdom.” That morning I felt very, very wise.
George and I managed to hang together for most of this leg and rolled into the second stop doing well. Once again we found the food, filled our bottles and rested briefly before heading back out.
As I have done in previous narratives, I want to explain what these water stops are like. Run exclusively by volunteers, the PMC water stops are a logistical marvel. Hundreds and hundreds of volunteers of all ages do everything from make and serve peanut butter and jelly and fluffer-nutters (my personal favorite) sandwiches, cut and serve fresh fruit of all kinds, provide protein and snack bars, goo, gels and other nutrient rich supplements, fix and pour thousands of gallons of Gatorade, fill bottles with water, play loud and uplifting music (some DJs and some live bands……at 6:30 in the morning!!!) and all with a big smile and an encouraging word. Both at the water stops and on the road, there are mechanics who can fix a flat, true a wheel, change a bent derailleur, and do just about anything except ride the bike for you. All for free and, again, all with a smile. Could the PMC be run without the volunteers? Sure but, in my opinion, it would be a far smaller operation since, without the tremendous support that the army of 4,000 volunteers provides, there would be far fewer riders, less funds raised and less hope for a cure. Thanks to everyone who volunteers. You make a huge difference!
As I mentioned, George and I kept our stop short and within about 10 minutes were back on the road. The next point of interest was just a few miles down the road: Cherry Street in Wrentham. Cherry Street has become a treasured part of each rider’s journey. The history is that a large number of families that live on this mile long street have been affected, directly or indirectly, by cancer. As an acknowledgement of what PMC and Dana-Farber do to fight this disease, the kind folks on Cherry Street go all out to show their support for the riders as we roll down this quiet New England lane.
This year was no exception. All of the hundreds of trees lining this quaint street had a red bow on the trunk. There were banners overhead welcoming us to Cherry St. and thanking the PMC and hundreds of people lining the sides of the road cheering us on. There was a steel drum band, a pipe and drum corp., a local resident in her seventies who dons a full clown suit each year just to cheer us on, lots of families with young children to give a “low-five” to and, this year, a special treat: As we were approaching the end of this winding lane, we started to hear cow bells. Not one or two, but a chorus of cowbells being rung with a fervor that seemed to grow as we grew closer. It was Gail, Gary, Meg and Alan by the side of the road beating these cowbells like the world would end if they did not. (Gary is a professional percussionist and had a number of various sized cowbells.) The only thing louder than the clanging cowbells were the cheers of encouragement they offered to each rider who passed. George and I approached this cacophony with big smiles, slowing and stopping to say thanks. The four musicians were all smiles and hugs for us but did not let us stay them from their duty. Even as we were chatting briefly with them, they would stop to clang the cowbells and cheer on each rider or group as they passed. George and I quickly realized that we were interrupting an important mission that Gail, Gary, Meg and Alan were fulfilling and got back in the saddle and on our way.
More miles through pastoral countryside were ahead and we picked up the tempo as we rode past working farms, through small villages and golf courses all coming to life on a quintessentially beautiful Saturday morning in August. Police officers in each town volunteer their time to man major intersections to keep the horde of riders safe. This is a much appreciated aspect to our safety that does not go unnoticed. I personally try to thank as many of these selfless civil servants as I can for giving up time with their families on a Saturday to stand guard over us. I hope they know how much their services are appreciated. We cruised down back roads and through more small towns as we headed beyond the 55 mile mark and the mid-point of our day.
As the miles rolled by, I started to realize that, once again, I was hungry. The next stop would be lunch in Dighton, MA. Lunch at 10:30 in the morning might seem a little strange but when you have been on the bike for 4.75 hours, a ham sandwich, some fruit, cookies and as much other nutrition as you want sounds awfully good.
There is a short, but steep climb just after the riders who started in Wellesley joined us. This always proves a bit of a bottle neck as the road suddenly has about 30% more riders and the intense climb creates a slow moving mass of cyclists trying to get to the top. Once there, the mob thins out a bit. I was able to take advantage of an opening and sprinted ahead.
The road into Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High School was lined with huge crowds of supporters yelling congratulations to various teams and individual riders. There were cancer survivors both young and old thanking us for riding and raising funds. There were high-school cheerleaders, men in fake grass skirts and entire families shouting their appreciation for us as we rolled past and into the back area of the school for shade under the tent, lunch and a little time off the bike.
I parked my Ridley in a spot away from other bikes (which was difficult given that there were about 2,500 bicycles in the area at any one time) and went off to see if I could find any of the rest of my team. I quickly ran into Neil (the fastest in our gang) who had been there a while, followed quickly by meeting up with John, Tony, Fran, Tommy, Caroline, George, Lynn, Alan, Dan and John M. We all shared stories, ate some nutritious, but not all that tasty, food and before long we were ready to head out to the next stop where we would meet one of the two folks our team was riding for this year.
As a PMC team, we have the option of associating with a “PMC Pedal Partner (presented by John Hancock)”, a young person who is fighting cancer and for whom we can dedicate our collective efforts. Connections with Pedal Partners are facilitated via PMC staff who put the team in touch with their partner and then step back. Our team has had a number of Pedal Partners in the past and we are always happy to help lift the spirits of a child, their family or both as a function of this worthy cause. Although many of us have folks that we ride for individually (e.g. I rode for Debbie this year) the idea of our team riding for a young person and, hopefully, showing them that there are a lot of folks in their corner always seems like a good idea. This year our team had two Pedal Partners: Emma and Callie. You can learn more about them by visiting our team page at the PMC web site at Team Emma and Callie's Angels's Ride. They are both remarkable young women and I, personally, was honored to ride for them and for their families. I know all my teammates felt the same.
From the lunch stop to the Pedal Partner stop in Lakeville was a short 17 miles. We launched as a group but were soon splintered by speed, crowds, traffic and other factors. I had recalled this segment as being fairly flat but there were some surprising and unexpected climbs that, at 80 plus miles in, did not seem so insignificant. I rode along, sometimes with a teammate or two, sometimes alone but always thinking about the mission and focusing on the road. Making sure that I could complete the ride was extremely important to me and, given what I had been able to get through so far and how I was feeling, I was very hopeful. Maintaining focus when you are tired becomes more of a task and even a short mental lapse when you are rolling along at 20mph can lead to a fall: not something that I wanted to experience again. Closing in on mile 90 and approaching the Lakeville stop, PMC volunteers had placed large pictures of the PMC Pedal Partners both current and historical. About every 30-40 feet, we would ride by another picture of a smiling child who had been helped by the PMC and Dana Farber. As we rode by these photos, I could not help but think about how this disease has affected the lives of these children and young adults and what courage they and their families show by dealing with cancer every day, day after day. I saw Callie’s photo and then, just before the turn into the stop, I saw Emma’s as well and a lump rose in my throat thinking about these two girls and what they have been through.
Unfortunately, Callie could not be there but Emma and her family could and our little band of cyclists met with them, chatting, singing, dancing and, eventually, having a team photo taken with Emma. Emma is quiet, reserved but radiates an inner strength that is obvious to anyone she meets. She has a bright smile and an adventurous spirit. I am glad that I have had the opportunity to meet her and see, in person, the grace that she displays despite her long ordeal. What a fantastic young woman.
After we said our goodbyes to Emma and her family, we all headed back onto the pavement preparing to go the last 20 miles of the day. This stretch of the course is pretty flat which made the going a little easier on our tired legs and sore rear-ends.
As a side note, if you are not a cyclist, take a look at the saddle on a good road bike and you will notice that it is skinny and hard. Then imagine spending 7 hours sitting on that skinny, hard thing. If you are a cyclist, you know what I am talking about.
Even though there was only twenty miles left in the journey for this day, there was one additional water stop. It turned out it was a good thing that it was there.
A little before the last water stop, I was feeling hot: really hot. I had just decided that I would stop at the Wareham facility just to pour some water on my head and neck to cool me down a bit when one of my teammates rode up beside me. I was a little surprised that Neil came from behind me as he is one of the fastest riders I know. We chatted for a minute and he let me know that he had had a fall and incurred some minor injuries. He agreed with me that a stop at Wareham would be a good idea. When we stopped and I saw the abrasions and the blood seeping down his leg, I was really glad we had stopped.
We found the med-tent and they cleaned his wounds, added some ointment and bandaged them as best as they could. I had some Tylenol with me which I shared with Neil to help prevent stiffness and ease any discomfort. He is such a trooper that he quickly reminded me that we needed to finish the day and, with a few more teammates in tow, we rolled on.
The Apostles have many traditions. Upholding “Rule 5” being the greatest (I will leave it to you to research and figure that out if you do not already know what I am talking about) but also including watching out for each other, honoring our sport and, of course, enjoying a post ride, malted recovery beverage. Going back at least 5 years, we have the tradition of stopping at a small bar in Onset, MA overlooking the water and only about 4 miles from the day-one finish at Mass Maritime Academy. Getting to “the Narrows” is a true milestone and walking in to see this small restaurant/bar crowded with teammates and other PMC riders (also maintaining proper hydration) is a real blast. The proprietors are wonderful folks and treat us with great deference, perhaps because of the way we smell, and show us a real caring spirit. For example, when we arrived at the Narrows during the 2014 PMC, coming in from 57 degree temperature and driving rain, we were greeted with coffee, towels and even a warm blanket for one of our teammates who was experiencing hypothermia. Really good folks.
Leaving the Narrows is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because we are only 3 or 4 miles from the end of the day but a curse because we have to get the legs cranked up once more. These last miles are in a densely populated area with a significant traffic flow so we always have to be alert for “threats” whether they may be from cars and trucks, railroad tracks, pot holes or other pavement issues or other riders. However, the allure of being done for the day was strong and, as I rode along, I knew that in just a mile or two, I would be done. Sure enough, after making the final turn onto MMA Boulevard, I found Gail waiting for me, crossed the finish line and looked forward to some rest at the end of day one.
Sunday: Bourne to Provincetown
I was awake at 3:30am Sunday after a really good dinner with Gail, an early bed time (I had not been to bed before the sun was down in a very long time) and a reasonable good night’s sleep. Ready to go by a little after 4am, Gail drove me back to Mass Maritime Academy in Bourne for the start of PMC day two. I double checked to make sure that I had everything I needed for another long ride including, this year, my helmet (see last year’s blog post for an explanation) and after a final check and a kiss goodbye, I was off to find my riding buddies and get out on the road.
We finally were on the road just after sunrise. One of the first issues with which we all had to deal was the trip over the Bourne Bridge. This is a long climb at about a 7% grade within the first two miles of the day but the worst part is that the route gets clogged with riders who are not ready for this climb and either go really slow or get off their bikes to walk up the hill until they get to the apex of the bridge. It seemed to take a very long time and was a test of my patience to get over the bridge and onto the Cape Cod Canal Path. Once on the path, all was forgiven and forgotten. The pathway is about 12 feet wide and very flat with a beautiful view of the canal and the early morning sun in the east. Riders could find their pace and move along accordingly; faster riders on the left and more relaxed riders to the right. Two of my teammates and I found our pace together and cruised along at about 20mph for most of the path. A nice way to start the day.
Once off the canal path, there is a series of back roads through Sandwich which lead to a long shallow climb that goes beneath Rte 6 and then makes a 90 degree left hand turn into a much more formidable climb for about a half of a mile. If you are not fully warmed up at that point, this hill will get your attention.
Once over the top, however, we were on the “Service Road” which is a seven or eight mile stretch of rolling hills which are a tremendous amount of fun. The climbs can be tough but the down hills allow a rider to build momentum and use that force to carry them up the next incline. Then repeat, repeat, repeat. It is a little like riding a roller coaster (but a lot more work) and makes the miles fly by. And fly we did.
After the rollers on the Service Road, we come out onto Rte 6A which is one of the major secondary roads on the Cape. Lots of folks were out to cheer us on and the crisp, clean air, bright sunshine and warm weather all kept our spirits high as we rolled into the first water stop of the day in Barnstable center with 25 miles behind us.
The usual drill ensued: grab some food, hit the bathrooms, fill the bottles, send a text or email and have a quick chat. Then it was back out on the road for the next 17 miles and the stop at Nickerson State Park.
This section of Cape Cod is pretty flat so we were able to pick up the pace even a bit more although there were sections when we were riding on Rte 6A and cars and other cyclists combined to create a log jam that was unfortunate. I am baffled sometimes when I see two or three cyclists riding abreast and taking up a whole lane of a road, seemingly oblivious to the motor vehicles behind them. These folks are a danger to themselves and, potentially, others as well. Bicycle riders are known to tell car drivers to share the road but that statement goes both ways. Riders need to be mindful of and share the road with cars as well. Some folks seem to forget that, in an altercation between a car and a bike, the bike tends to lose.
About 2 miles before the second water stop of the day, we pass a long stretch of open field fronted by a four foot tall boxwood hedge. This is the home campus of Cape Cod Sea Camps and, on PMC Sunday, all the campers and staff, hundreds of them, line the back side of “da Hedge” and cheer, ring cowbells, hold signs and do all they can to support the PMC riders. This is a famous site for those of us on bikes and many, including my teammates and me, stop to get photos taken with the hordes of smiling, screaming teenagers. They are so full of energy that it really helps boost our spirits yet again and makes the last couple of miles before our break some of the easiest we log that weekend.
We rolled into the parking lot at Nickerson State Park in Brewster about half way done for the day. The music was loud, towels soaked in ice water were offered to us and knowing that we were closing in on the end of this journey, we all laughed, danced and enjoyed each other’s company and the day. One of the truly bright spots at Nickerson is a young man who wanders through the crowd wearing a big smile and carrying a cardboard sign. The sign says “thanks to you, I am a survivor for ___ years.” The remarkable thing is that he has crossed out the numbers 1,2,3 etc. until, this year, it said 13 years. I always look for this young man and am always glad to see his smiling face and his sign as an affirmation of his continued good health. I am grateful for his thanks and support and hope he has a long and happy life.
After departing Nickerson, we ride for a while on the Cape Cod Rail Trail, a converted railroad bed that is well paved, level and a great spot for getting a pace line together and increasing our speed and efficiency. We merrily rolled along at a fast clip and picked up some other riders who wanted to join the fun. At one point, we had 10 riders in our line, each rider taking the lead or “pulling” for about a mile and then rotating to the back of the line. The benefit of a pace line is that, except for the leader, all riders are drafting in the slipstream of the rider in front of them. Drafting can improve efficiency by 30% or more and, by limiting the lead rider’s pulling time to one mile, no rider is overly taxed. Riders have to communicate effectively with each other to make sure the line stays together and it is the responsibility of the leader to warn of any road hazards and let other riders know that we will be passing them by saying a riders three favorite words “on your left”.
We cranked along, enjoying the warm morning air and the scenery along the rail trail. When we left the trail, we headed toward the shore and a long climb to the top of a sandy, beach side road. The views were wonderful and despite the work, it actually was a series of three hills, one after the other, we knew that we were getting closer to the end of the ride. We left the shore road and headed inland through some more rolling hills, once again, using the momentum gained on the down hills to help carry us up the other side. Seemingly before we knew it, we made a right turn, up a slight hill and into the last water stop of the day.
As I walked around, getting refueled and chatting with friends and fellow riders, I started to experience something of a bittersweet feeling. I knew that we were only about 20 miles from the finish and accomplishing another milestone goal but I also realized that all the work that goes into preparing for the PMC and the ride itself would come to an end and, with it, the excitement, anticipation, adrenaline and being a part of a massive effort would all end as well. Sort of like when a musician spends weeks preparing for a concert and then, when it is over, the performer is left with a void; sort of “what’s next?” However, I learned many years ago that the PMC is not a single event, it is a year round need, a continuous effort that takes on many forms and when PMC 2015 is really wrapped up for me in November, it is only a month or two before registration for 2016 opens and we start all over again. Training goes on year round regardless.
We gathered for a team photo and then it was back out onto the road for the last segment. The day continued to be crystal clear and we passed marshes, ponds and roads that could not be more perfect for cyclists. There is a series of hills on the north side of Truro that I only vaguely remembered before getting to them. But, as I climbed, feeling tired and looking forward to arriving in Provincetown, I remembered feeling the same way last year and the year before that. Tough going after a long day but there was no way around it. We turned onto Rte 6 again and faced another series of long hills up a moderate grade before cresting the last one and looking down the long, straight neck to where Provincetown lay in the distance. Fighting a stiff headwind, we made our way forward until we finally reached the large, faded sign that read “Welcome to Provincetown” where we stopped to wait for the rest of our gang to catch up and take our annual team photo in front of that welcoming marker.
From there, it was just a couple of miles to the split where riders have the option of turning right and heading off into the “dunes” for three more hills, five more miles and then the finish, or going straight for a more direct ending to the ride. My friend John does not like to do the dunes and usually goes straight while I usually take the route with extra miles. However, I had an idea.
Both John and I started our involvement with PMC six years earlier when our friend Brett was diagnosed with brain cancer. Brett’s treatment has been successful to date but is closely monitored and will always have the specter of cancer lurking in the background. I suggested to John that we ride into the finish together this year so that Gail could get a photo of us finishing our PMC journey this year in honor of Brett once more. I sacrificed the extra miles and John and I rode to the finish together to cheers from the crowds and a big welcoming smile from Gail. Photos were taken, we checked in with the PMC officials and the ride was over for another year.
Gail and I stayed in Provincetown for an extra couple of days as we usually do. I took some time to reflect on the experience and what it meant to me. Despite the physical and emotional challenges I faced this year, I was pleased with my performance and really happy that I had dedicated the ride to Debbie. She really was with me through the tough sections and the easier ones. I am also really grateful that I have such good friends and riding companions with whom I was able to share this weekend. It makes a huge difference having folks to talk to and share a joke with as we roll along and who will offer encouragement when times get tough.
The PMC is an important organization and plays a crucial role in funding the fight against cancer but it really goes well beyond that goal. Sure the Pan-Mass Challenge raises awareness of the need for better treatment, ground breaking research, improved support for families who have a loved one affected by cancer and many other aspects of direct and indirect assistance in this fight. But the PMC also brings together disparate groups of people who, without this common goal, might never have the privilege of knowing one another. PMC brings out kindness and generosity in folks and pushes aside negative energy and feelings. Yes, the challenges posed by participating in the PMC can be daunting: cycling 192 miles and raising a minimum of $4,500 in donations to do so is not easy but as founder, Billy Starr, has voiced on many occasions, “Commit. You’ll figure it out”
I am committed.
Oh, one last note. I felt a little guilty about not riding the Provincetown “dunes” this year so, on Wednesday morning, I hopped on the bike, went back to the Welcome to Provincetown sign and finished my usual route through the dunes. No crowds were there to cheer me on but, when I was done, I could sense Debbie telling me that I was finally finished. ‘Till next year.