Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Last thoughts on Death Valley...

More than a week removed from one of the most difficult days of my year…the range of feelings and pictures and emotions that has rolled through my head is almost comical. Last year was my first Death Valley visit and my first century ride and when I left, I knew I would never experience anything like it. I was wrong. Once again the tears flowed often, and were more likely a result of joy, triumph, and love as they were sadness and struggle.

As our bus rolled into DV on Thursday, the sense of dread that had been building all week felt like it would paralyze me. The warmth of having been with teammates from the moment I left my house was gone (thanks again for the ride Steve, it meant a lot to start this journey with you, your wife, and Lynn). I couldn’t see the beauty of the terrain. All I saw was desolation and rock. I didn’t feel like I had prepared enough…I couldn’t stop thinking of last years ride back to the ranch and how much I hurt at dinner afterwards. Once we arrived at Furnace Creek though, the ranch became a physical and emotional oasis. The shelter helped me forget the pain, and the camaraderie of our team, both new teammates and old, rekindled my spirit. Introductions and hugs abounded as I was greeted and as I welcomed others. Seeing Sarah, Ted, and Sophie warmed me to the core, and once I saw Joe and thought of Adam, or saw Tom and Mary and thought of Jake, and Steve and Katie and Ellie, I was reminded why I was here. This ride isn’t about me and how fast or far I go…it’s bigger than every one of us. Then, claiming my bike, with its picture of Sophie and my father, Bill, and helping the “Spirit Squad” decorate everyone’s door finished restoring my strength and fortitude. My real work was already done; I had raised my money and gotten to Death Valley (note to others who may want to try this in the future: everything I just mentioned is, sadly, easily forgotten when you’re out on that road…it might be tougher mentally than it is physically). Of course, hanging out with the team, learning how to make balloon animals (who would have thought that inflating the balloon was the most difficult part of the operation?!), and listening to Sean make fun of Katie Clark’s little toes didn’t hurt either (have you seen them…they’re really little!).

Friday morning brought a picturesque day, the type we would hope for on Saturday. Breakfast with the family and Sean…the meeting, our team introductions (yep, I shed a tear or two) the warm-up ride to Zabriskie Point, another lazy afternoon at the pool, and the inspirational Friday night dinner...all so simple, but so unforgettable. For starters, the scenery at the Point is astounding. I was as awestruck this year as I was last year. (side note: Why is it that in Grand Rapids I never notice Sophie’s pump, hanging from her waist in some ornate and beautiful bag, but while she was directing the team for our photo at Zabriskie Point, that’s all I could see?) And if you believed the afternoon at the pool was lazy, you obviously weren’t there to watch Sophie wear out rider after rider in the pool (she’s really become quite a fish!). Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention Kevin’s underwater photography. Consider this a warning, because once you see the footage you will want to run out and get your own waterproof camera. Also, be sure you get the name of the organic chocolate/blueberry delights that Carmen was handing out Friday night. Remember though, you suck on them, don’t chew ‘em!

Saturday started early, and it didn’t take long before my nerves took over. I was about to ride 105 miles through Death Valley! Last year I felt under prepared and only finished because of Derek Dykstra and the team from Appleton, Wisconsin. Yet here I was, feeling stronger but less prepared than last year, wearing bunny ears on my helmet, doing it all over again. Tom Schiedel told me after the ride that he used the inspirational quotes on our bike cards as motivation to finish the ride…I laughed when I heard that because I used them to start. I read each and every one, hoping that the athlete in me would take over once we got out there, and before I knew it, Sarah, Ted, and I were rolling into Badwater. Once Sarah turned back, Ted and I joined a big group of teammates and started, what may be…to this point, the longest and greatest pace line in West Michigan ride team history. I’m not sure if the calls of “POOP!” and “BA’LZ!” tarnished the experience for the others, but I know “DRINKING!” was a very helpful reminder for everyone (In case anyone is interested, Ted, Sean, or I are available for any of your non-JDRF training rides…for a nominal fee). As for the rest of the ride, what can I say…44 miles to Ashford Mill, boring (to all you returning riders, how cool was it to see the Herron’s out on the route volunteering!?)…Jubilee Pass and its 8 miles and 8 degrees incline, been there, done that (though, it was the first time I made it without resting)…52.5 miles back into an accelerating headwind and climbing temperatures, o.k, now you’ve got my attention! My ride “started” at Mormon Point (only 33.5 miles left!) and ended at Badwater. When Sean, Pete, Ted, and I pulled into Badwater, I really needed the break. I felt so good and strong for the first 72 miles, I was stunned at what the last 16 did to me. I couldn’t eat (everything was making me nauseous) and I couldn’t cool down. After 10 minutes off the bike, I felt hotter than when we arrived. Once I finally pushed my pride aside (not an easy job, trust me!) it took Bikin’ Mike about 5 seconds to convince me to get a ride in. I may have shed a tear or two Friday, (one tear at our team introductions and a second at dinner, while being reminded why we were in Death Valley). That was nothing compared to Saturday. When I threw in the towel and said good-bye to Ted, Sean, and Pete, (can you believe Ted wanted to ride in with me? He wasn’t “finished” he just wanted to finish with me!) I felt sadness for leaving my friends to endure what would assuredly be a horrific final 17 miles. I felt like I failed my Dad and Sophie. All I could think about was the dozens of times I could have trained, but instead procrastinated, always thinking there would be another time to train. The tears came easily. Mike dropped me off at the turn to Badwater so I could roll over the finish line under my own power (side note: I got a ride in with the fixed gear guy…during the drive, Mike asked him why “in the hell” he was riding that bike on this course…his answer, “’cause this is the bike I ride..” It was good enough for Mike so it’s good enough for me. Maybe someday I’ll get it.) When I rolled across the finish line and was greeted by Sarah, I was uncontrollable. I wanted to apologize…I wanted to explain, but I couldn’t talk. Sarah just let me get it out and then reminded me of everything I already knew…that just being there meant I had already done my job…each mile I rode was just a bonus. Thankfully, my tears would soon change from sadness to joy. I received the doctor’s clearance, went to check on the teams’ progress, and heard about Amy. I stopped at the medical “tent” to see her, and she turned my attitude around. There she lied; having spent every ounce she could on the ride, and hooked up to her second i.v. bag. As soon as she saw me her first question was about how her best friend Melanie was doing. Unbelievable! She’s the one lying in bed suffering, and all she can think about is her teammate. The tears didn’t stop there though. Sarah meeting Ted when he and Sean were driven in because of Sean’s “effin’” chain…Mary greeting Tom… Pete looking like a salt lick…Carmen’s joy…one Schmeider after another… Nicole’s relief…Katie greeting Steve, who was being escorted by the greatest coach in the world, (yep, it’s true) MC…it was unforgettable! How about the finish line late in the day? Did West Michigan rule or what? Not even the ever growing wind storm, and flickering power could stop us. Sure the dinner awards presentation was cancelled, but we already knew who the real winners were…us! Best coach…Mike Clark, again! Best team…West Michigan! Of course, it was nice to hear from Coach Mike that Tim St.Clair also thinks that we were the best. That’s all we needed to celebrate our many victories on Saturday. Thanks again to Kevin’s sister Belinda for the early evidence of our accomplishments, and for going to get us more beer!

Sunday morning brought some good-byes (it always seems so sudden…like we just got there)… Jasker (you should have shaved the body, dude!), the Schmeider clan in their van, and Sarah and Ted off to their honeymoon. Many of us continued the team building and brought Vegas to its knees Sunday night. For those of you who weren’t there, you didn’t miss much, but I can tell you several things…one, if you ever travel with Carmen, let her check you into the hotel…two, Mike Howard and Kevin Owens aren’t as nice as they appear (no matter what Carmen says, you guys rock)…three, if Tom tells you “you should see this scar I have…”, look away because he’s about to drop his pants, again…four, the educational seminar in front of the pirate ship is Kevin’s fault…five, let Steve Clark gamble with your money, he’s better at it than you…and six, if you want to get a tattoo, call ahead!

Yes, this is how I am remembering the weekend. Yes, it is more word-y than a long MC e-mail, and yes, I’ve left out a million fantastic, little things. I’m sure my personal copy will get longer as things keep coming back to me. The one thing that I know won’t change is the overwhelming feeling I brought home with me. From the outside, we appear very normal; different people from different places with a shared distinction and goal. We all love someone with diabetes and we want to find a cure. The reason we are great is that our love and selflessness doesn’t stop there. The very same soul and charisma that brought us together isn’t limited to the cause or the team. Each and every one of us looks out for each other, our fellow riders, and our fellow man...that makes us original, and great! My dad asked me this week, in the wake of my Saturday mental and physical rollercoaster, if I would go back and do it again. My answer: absolutely.

Why, you ask? Why would I submit myself to the mental and physical abuse of 105 miles through Death Valley? Well, there are two answers to that question. The first, easy and obvious answer: so that Sophie and Adam and Jake and Ellie and every other child with type 1 diabetes doesn’t have to endure what my parents have. I promise you…after seeing what this disease has done to my Mother and Father, the thought of Sophie growing old with diabetes just destroys me. I’ve spent my life hoping, and working, to avoid being diagnosed with diabetes. The day Sophie was diagnosed, I ran my 5 mile loop in 30 minutes (that’s a 6 minute pace, 2.5 minutes faster than my norm)…I was pissed. I spent the night begging and pleading with God that it be me instead of her…but I’m sure you have all been there once. The second, more difficult and selfish answer: I like the way it makes me feel. By that I mean it’s more than just doing something good. I can do something good anytime I want. Instead, I relate this experience to Christmas. Each December everyone gets nicer, more polite, more patient, and more loving. Whatever your religion, the holiday season is ripe with the sense of fellowship and family. You exude it, you feel it in others, everyone is better for it, and every year you probably wish that you could feel that way all year. Doing this ride is doing something really great with really great people! Last year, Mike Clark and I talked in length after the ride about surrounding ourselves with significant moments…moments that stay with you and really mean something. My daily life is mostly void of those moments…but in Death Valley, on the JDRF rides…those moments are everywhere. So if I know how to get it, and where to find it, I would be crazy not to go.

So, I’ll see you in Death Valley, for as long as I’m able…


did said...



ZipMike said...

Great summary Rob. You must write for a livin' or somethin'.
And for the record, I am as nice as I appear (said the spider to the fly.)

Chad said...

Great post, Rob. Whitefish in August was my first JDRF ride, and it won't be my last. The whole experience is really difficult to describe, but you did an excellent job.

club-velo said...

Glad to see that you decided to share your heart w/ the rest of the world there Rob! It woulda been a shame to keep it to yourself (and Sarah and I!)

Besides.......you make my posts seem brief - not an easy task!

Steve said...

Great summary! Personally, I find it very difficult to summarize the ride to all those have have asked. On one hand it is the hardest thing that I have ever done physically and mentally, it was excruciating, and it was humbling. But on the other hand, it is rewarding, it was fulfilling, and it was momentous.

I went from:
- "I can't believe that we are doing this again"(Thursday),
- to "how can we not come here EVERY year"(Friday),
- to "#%^%$## YOU Death Valley!"(Saturday),
- to "See ya next year"(Now).

How do you even start to explain all that to people? You can't.

PS ... anyone that wants me to gamble with their $$$, just let me know. :-)

Katie said...

Goodness. Get the guy a golf club & 50 degree weather so he stops bringing us to tears.

I thank you for not calling my feet hooves (like Sean & my husband).

Come the awards ceremony, you have now 'hammered' past MC for the long-windedness award, but it was well worth it and I thank you for posting this. It might just be the thing to get a few more new riders out there next year and you definitely summed up what it's all about.

Tom & Mary Scheidel said...

When I started reading this Mary brought me a Kleenex and said "You might need this." I did. Rob you are a man of many talents. Golf. Cycling. "Drinking". Poetry. While your post didn't rhyme, it was decidedly poetic. I will ride with you and your bunny ears any time, any place.

pea said...

Hey Rob,
First, thanks for the cute red JDRF socks, I think they gave me some extra good karma for the ride... But more importantly, thanks for your words; I have none, as I am beyond words still. So, I can't add anything eloquent for now except that perhaps your title is misleading. I'm sure it won't be the "last thoughts on Death Valley" by any stretch of any of our imaginations.

See everyone on the 13th!