The Way I See It:
Sometimes you back into a really good thing.
When my wife, Marian, said she wanted to participate in this year's third annual Tanqueray Boston-New York AIDS Ride, I was not enthused. The event would be grueling--more than 250 miles of cycling over three days in September. I'd have to commit to raising $1,500 in pledges toward AIDS-related research and social services. Though I understood what moved her about the disease's victims, AIDS was her cause, not mine. To be honest, I'd never had a cause, being too much of a skeptic and a loner to join anything more political than a softball team. But I have led a life of unceasing good fortune and knew I was past due to give something back. So I told her I'd ride too.
We began serious cycling in May. We wheeled down every country road we could find. We rode to Gettysburg and back. We rode to Frederick and back. We rode in the rain, in 98-degree heat and through nagging little injuries. We had conversations like this:
Wife: "Is all this riding going to make my thighs bigger?"
Husband: "Yes. They'll be huge. Could we go to sleep now?"
And we asked people for money. Checks came in from friends, family, co-workers, Hopkins faculty and administrators. I took a deep breath and asked Michael Bloomberg for a whopping check. He wrote a whopping check. By mid-September, we had raised more than $9,000, and pedaled enough training miles to go from Baltimore to Dallas. We were as ready as we were going to get.
September 12 dawned gray and threatening as 3,200 bleary riders gathered in a Boston parking lot at 5 a.m. for the start of Boston-New York AIDS Ride 3. We cheered when it was announced that we had raised, collectively, $7.5 million. We grew solemn when a speaker whom I could not see announced the name of a young man who had lost his father to AIDS, and who would be riding his father's bike. Two people silently escorted a riderless bicycle to the stage, symbolizing those who had been lost. Then the organizers cued up some pounding neo-Celtic rock 'n' roll, and the first riders pedaled off to the cheers of hundreds of spectators. It was all as hokey as it sounds, but it worked. When it was my turn to ride out, I had a lump in my throat the size of a Buick.
It was not the last time I would choke up. People cycled past with photos of lost loved ones pinned to their jerseys. Paraplegics rode mile after exhausting mile, propelling themselves on hand-cranked tricycles. Strangers stood on street corners in towns all over Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York and shouted, "Thank you!" "You guys are awesome!" "We love you!" Time and again I was bested on a hill by one of the Positive Pedalers, HIV-positive riders who participate in all the Tanqueray AIDS Rides around the country.
The first day, Boston to Storrs, Conn., was 96 hilly miles. By mile 40, a misadjusted seat was grinding my prostate into talcum and inflaming my left knee. Two fingers on my left hand had gone numb. After 88 miles and 10 hours, we faced an eight-mile climb into camp. I looked at my wife, smiled wearily and said, "I have nothing left."
Some guy next to her looked over and said, "You have everything left." He was right.
Time and again I was astonished at the guts and determination of my co-riders, some of whom were clearly injured, exhausted or seriously overweight, but who would not give up. My wife struggled with her own bad knee, but she wouldn't quit, either. Her motto was, Every mile, every hill. On the back of her jersey was the name of each person who had died at Baltimore's Don Miller AIDS hospice since she'd started volunteering there.
As we came into Bridgeport, Conn., on the second night, hundreds of people cheered us. Two years ago, Bridgeport residents had heckled riders; some had thrown rocks and bottles. After bypassing the city last year, the AIDS Ride gave it a second chance, and Bridgeport responded with an effusive, heartfelt welcome that overwhelmed us. It is not easy to ride with tears in your eyes.
On the last day, within the first two miles, I strained a tendon in my right knee. At a pit stop, I iced it, swallowed enough ibuprophen to stun a mule and rode on. After 66 more miles, the knee felt like somebody had broken off an ice pick inside it, but so what? By now, everybody was sore and worn out, and none of us had ever felt better. We rolled through the Bronx, pedaled the length of Manhattan and paraded down Eighth Avenue in front of thousands of cheering people. I hugged my wife in sweaty gratitude. It was all her fault, bless her tough little heart.
Then it was over, with a suddenness that left us emotionally hollow. I thought about the ride for days, dreamed about it at night. And I came to this conclusion: If you ever have the opportunity to find out just how strong and resilient you can be on someone else's behalf, do it. It will change your life.
It's hard for me to articulate how it has changed mine. I just know, deep down, that it has. Besides, I'd rather close with this: Never will I forget how brave some people are. The human race is a mess in so many ways. But if we have redemption, I glimpsed it in the weary, determined faces of people grinding through an eight-mile climb. If 3,000 people will put themselves through that, we do, indeed, possess grace.
Dale Keiger is a senior writer for the Johns Hopkins Magazine.
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