This year’s write-up will be a little different than most years, as I hope to capture a bit more of the flavor of the event and a bit less of the minute details. Hopefully it’ll be shorter, and a bit more interesting to read!
The two months preceding the ride were absolutely insane for me. First, I started a new job. Then my best friend Inna was in the hospital for over a month, during which time I was her primary caregiver, which really demanded an awful lot from me. I was at the hospital 21 out of 29 nights she was there.
On one of my rare nights off, I came home to find water pouring out of my ceiling from my air conditioning unit. Better still, it took the plumber no less than six days to finally stop the leak. By that time, the ceilings in the kitchen, entry, and bathroom all had to be repaired.
As you might imagine, all this had a detrimental effect on the class I was taking. It was the last class I needed to graduate with my certificate in graphic design, but I wound up having to take an incomplete because I had no time to work on any of the projects!
Pile on top of that a dispute I had with my bike shop. They replaced my headset, which is part of the steering system. However, they did a slipshod job of it, and I wound up having to bring the bike back in, whereupon their other mechanic (not knowing about the previous work) said that I really needed to replace my headset (déjà vu?) and they wouldn’t have the part I needed for at least ten days! Needless to say, I got on the horn to someone with a forebrain and got my bike repaired in a matter of minutes at no charge.
Although my training had gone well enough, in the weeks approaching the ride I bought some new cycling shorts and immediately developed two separate problems around the “seat-body interface”. I bought some chamois cream and did what I could to alleviate those issues.
Are you getting tired of this list of tribulations yet? Boy, I sure was! But we’re not done yet! The coup de grâce happened just a week before the ride, when I threw my back out helping Inna move. I couldn’t walk without a cane just four days before the ride! After all that, I was pretty skeptical that I’d be able to pull off something as big as the PMC ride without some catastrophe—major or minor—taking place.
The ride sort of sneaked up on me this year. Because of everything else that was going on, I hadn’t had any time to pack or even get mentally prepared. In fact, I wound up thinking about the PMC as just another regular weekend ride. About the only prep I did was spend Friday morning cleaning and tuning the bike, and around noontime I took it out for my usual pre-PMC ride out to Waltham and back.
That pre-ride is usually pretty relaxing. By then you’ve tapered your training, and have probably been off the bike for a few days. It’s nice to be anxious to get back in the saddle. At the same time, however, you’re only there to make sure the bike’s okay and get a little blood flowing into the legs. For good or bad, your training’s done, and you should only be doing a real easy, relaxed ride.
My back was the main thing I was watching during this final ride. Cycling with a bad back can feel like someone trying to do acupuncture on you with an awl, but I didn’t feel too bad. Of course, whether it’d hold up to 200 miles of riding was another question entirely. As I told some of my friends, my back was certainly good enough to start, but there was no way to predict whether it was going to be good enough to finish or not.
Several people went to particular lengths to tell me not to “kill myself” on the ride. I found that kind of interesting, actually. Most Americans feel very strongly that people should face their fears and overcome their phobias. They say, “I’m afraid of heights, so I am going to go learn to skydive” or something. Yet those same people will take all the drugs modern medicine can devise, or seek therapy or eastern medicine or New Age treatments purely to avoid pain.
Buddhists advise accepting one’s pain, and “being with it”. That idea might serve many Americans better, because ultimately there is no escaping the reality that we all have to face our own inescapable pain, face it alone, and move on.
Unless you’re a cyclist, one of the things you might not understand is that cycling is supposed to be painful. Not in your knees or your wrists or your neck, no, but your body will not develop the strength and stamina to bike 200 miles unless you stress your muscles and your aerobic system through training—hard training.
Training is hard work; it often boils down to how much pain you’re willing to take. Of course, it’s nothing compared to what cancer patients have to endure in treatment, which is one of the things that keeps me going. I have the luxury of choice: I can choose to push myself until it hurts, and I can choose to stop if I want, whereas cancer patients have to go through much worse, and cannot stop their pain through a simple choice.
That’s one reason why I ride: to show that I am willing to share their pain, and share my strength.
Probably the biggest change for me in this year’s PMC was that my friend Jeanie wasn’t there to drive me around and be my support person. She has been there for all my previous rides—even the first one, when she was recovering from abdominal surgery and had to talk her sister through driving her car to pick me up. Jeanie’s mother died of breast cancer, and her sister was in treatment for the same when I did my first ride. The PMC means a lot to her, and supporting me was always her way of contributing to the cause. In 2003 she picked me up at the hospital when I crashed out of the event, and in 2004 she flew up from her new home in Austin and took time out from organizing a huge seminar for her employer, just to support me. But she just couldn’t swing making that same trip again this year.
The friend who agreed to step up and fill her role this year was my friend Sheeri. Sheeri has always sponsored my ride, and she’s ridden herself in the AIDS Ride and other charity events. She’s also organized a couple of bike rides for the Bisexual Resource Center, where she’s been an active organizer.
When I asked, Sheeri didn’t hesitate; she volunteered gladly, and I was exceedingly pleased to have her help. She really deserves credit for making the weekend work, because I couldn’t do the ride without someone else taking care of the transportation, logistics, and emergency contingencies.
Sheeri’s first responsibility was to get me out to Sturbridge Friday afternoon. That seemed like it was going to go fine. She, I, and her fiancé Tony left town about 3pm with my bike firmly strapped to the rack on the back of her car. As we approached Worcester, we started seeing lightning in the distance, and then the rains came.
Last year I made a big deal about how 2004 had been the only year when it didn’t rain sometime during the PMC weekend, and that record is still safe. Despite the weatherman’s prediction of only a 40% chance of precipitation, it rained on us during the drive out again this year.
People talk about storms of “biblical proportions”, and this one sure came close. The rain was—without exaggeration—coming down sideways in ludicrous quantities. We could only drive 15 MPH on the Mass Pike, and couldn’t see more than about thirty feet. When we finally got to the hotel in Sturbridge where riders check in, most of the parking lot was flooded, and I saw one SUV with standing water up to its bumper!
The event check in is really well-organized. You go to a particular area based on your surname and pick up a packet with your jersey, luggage and bike tags, water bottle, and other miscellaneous stuff. Then they put a hospital-style identifying wrist band on your arm and you’re done… unless you’re a first-time rider, in which case they ring cowbells and everyone cheers for you. But registration has never taken me more than five minutes.
The next order of business was checking into our hotel, which was mostly easy. The hard part was getting into our room, because the swipe cards didn’t match the room number, so Sheeri and Tony went down to the desk to swap them while I sat outside our room. One item on the map of local attractions caught my eye: Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park. Things must be pretty desperate for a town to adopt a fictional landmark as a tourist attraction! While I waited, all the lights went out in the hotel for about twenty seconds. I theorized that they’d had to “reboot the floor” in order to fix our access cards, but it probably was due to the lingering thunderstorms in the area.
The balance of Friday was spent eating supper at Friendly’s, getting supplies at a (very) nearby CVS, and watching the last few minutes of the PMC’s opening ceremonies on television. As you might imagine, the opening ceremonies usually include inspirational messages and guest speakers, all designed to inspire riders to ride, and to educate the public about the event. Although it is a bit self-serving, I do think it’s a valuable thing to see, because it grounds you in the ultimate meaning of what the ride is about, and what together we have accomplished.
Unfortunately, Friday never provides a good night’s sleep, and one has to wake up at 4:45am in order to make the 6am departure. It’s a bit rough, and another nod goes out to Sheeri for getting up at that hour and driving me to the start.
What’s the start like? It’s a bit surreal. The event founder makes a speech that no one can hear, because the PA system isn’t very good. Someone sings the national anthem, and then people start leaving. 2500 riders are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in a big parking lot, and they filter slowly—very slowly—through a one-lane exit onto Route 20, Sturbridge’s main thoroughfare. It takes about 20 minutes for all the riders just to get out onto the road. I spotted Sheeri as she loyally watched the grand départ, and waved to her as I saddled up.
From the start—even at 6 in the morning—there are roadside cheering sections, people who come out specifically to thank everyone for riding. It used to feel a little strange being thanked by people for going out and having a beautiful, well-supported ride across Massachusetts and up Cape Cod, but those people are really out there to thank the riders for the effort they’ve made to raise money to fight cancer. It again grounds you and keeps the ride’s purpose in perspective.
Another thing that does that is the rest stops. Coming into every rest stop there are dozens of posters showing kids who are patients at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The Jimmy Fund was originally founded specifically to combat childhood cancers, but thanks to the Jimmy Fund’s success the survivorship of the most common form of childhood cancer has exceeded 90%, and their research has broadened to include adult cancers and related immune disorders such as AIDS. But riding by all those posters of kids with leukemia really hits home.
But that’s just the beginning. Current and former cancer patients—both children and adults—often gather and meet riders at the rest stops. My friend Charlie, whom I rode with Saturday morning, asked me to take his picture alongside one of the cancer patients his team was paired with: an infant named Jared. Later in the day, I was stocking up at a water stop when a 72 year-old lady came up to me and thanked me, saying she’d been cancer-free for six years. Those kinds of encounters really make the cause real, and put into perspective that the fundraising is more than just a tacky plea for money: it saves lives.
But however much fun you’re having, when the DJ starts playing “Sweet Home Alabama”, it’s definitely time to leave the water stop!
But I’m getting ahead of myself in talking about the water stops. I wasn’t a mile down the road from the start of the ride when I spotted a familiar backside. On Saturday, everyone is expected to wear the official riders’ jersey, I saw one guy whose jersey was a great big ole Union Jack. I was in the process of sneaking up on him from behind when another rider recognized me and alerted the whole group that I was there.
Apparently I’d stumbled onto a whole mess of riders I knew from the weekend training rides run by Bobby Mac out of Quad Cycles in Arlington. In addition to Charlie—my Brit friend—that group contained his girlfriend Julie, her friend Caitlin, and other QC regulars Stephanie and Steve. It was like old home week, and I took the opportunity to snap a few pictures with my new camera-phone, the results of which can be seen here and on this page.
In my four previous years riding the PMC, I never saw anyone I knew on the ride. Sure, last year I met a couple people at Mass Maritime at the end of the first day, but probably the one major difference this year was the presence of my friends. I saw Julie and Caitlin briefly after the start, but they fell back and had mechanical issues that kept them on the road until late. I played leapfrog with Steve and Stephanie for a while, but Charlie and I left them behind when we skipped the first rest stop. Subsequently Charlie and I ran into our friend Jeff at the second water stop, and he joined us for the next leg of the ride.
Each year I look forward to the hill at Purgatory Chasm, because that’s the best opportunity to go bombing down a hill and let it all hang out. This year I again set a new world land speed record, achieving a surprising 46.4 MPH on my increasingly decrepit old bike.
Along the way we came upon one of those variable-message signs that use radar to display your speed. Believe it or not, they actually do register bicycles. We had come across them several times on our weekend training rides, and I have a firm policy to sprint for them. Although it’s unwise on a long ride to use up valuable energy in a sprint, I put a few firm pedal strokes in, just to see what I could do.
I wound up taking much longer on this leg than I have in previous years. Part of that was because Charlie’s leg started giving him some problems, and part was due to a short unplanned detour that the route made. But shortly after that we reached the “lunch” stop. That has always struck me as a misnomer, and this year was no different; even with the slower pace, we arrived there at 10:45 in the morning.
Charlie decided to go to the medical tent to get a massage, so I went my own way. I ran briefly into another QC rider, Tony, who organizes the meet up at Mass Maritime, but I headed out on my own very shortly thereafter and made up quite a bit of time.
The first day of the PMC is 112 miles, and by the time it ends, you’ve definitely overcome some points where it got really hard.
One of the things non-cyclists don’t realize is that there’s really no such thing as a tailwind. The only time a breeze actually helps a cyclist is if it’s blowing from almost directly behind you: to be specific, within a 45 degree arc, or no more than 22 degrees away from directly backwards. But even if you get such a tailwind, it’s likely that the wind direction will vary, as will the bike’s heading as soon as the road turns. So, really, if there’s any wind at all, you can pretty much count on having to fight it. The exceptions are extremely rare, although they’re also magical, because you tear along at speed with very little effort.
On top of the wind, toward the end of the first day, you’ve been on the bike at least six or seven hours, and you’ve long since depleted your glycogen stores.
Now, your muscles can operate using three different energy sources: glycogen, protein, and fat. However, glycogen is highly preferred over the other two sources, which aren’t as readily converted to energy. The unfortunate problem is that your brain can only function on one fuel— glycogen—and when that’s depleted, your brain starts getting sluggish. People who think a long bike ride would be a great contemplative activity probably haven’t experienced the “runner’s high” that comes to all endurance athletes. Your consciousness gets very small and works exclusively on very little thoughts, like “Watch that hole!” and “Keep up with that guy!” Words are both thought and spoken in short, gasping bursts, and you no longer conduct the complex, multi-syllabic discussions with other riders you had at the start of the ride.
Your sense of distance gets warped, as well. You start looking at your cyclocomputer, calculating how many miles—down to the tenth of a mile—until the next rest stop. Those six miles that barely counted as a warm-up at the beginning of the ride now seem to take decades to traverse, and don’t even think about how sadly you limp up the hills.
I, of course, start looking at my GPS, which tells me the exact distance to the next stop. However, that’s linear distance, “as the crow flies”. It doesn’t take into account the twists and turns of the route, and believe me there’s nothing worse than looking down at the GPS and seeing the distance to the next rest stop actually increasing because the route heads away from it for a short stretch!
But finally you arrive at the checkpoint, and there’s a payoff. There’s just no explaining the divine attributes that a simple garden hose takes on when, after seven hours of riding on the hot roads of summer, you use it to spray cold water over your head.
Although my back fared pretty well that first day, it eventually started making itself known in subtle ways. It didn’t really hurt, but it was just sensitive enough to sap some strength from my lower body.
But overall, Day One worked out very nicely. Riding with Charlie and Jeff slowed me down at the start, when I would otherwise have expended a lot of energy sprinting up the hills of central Mass. Then, when I left them behind at the lunch stop, I could go at my own pace and use that strength I’d conserved during the first half of the day. So I wasn’t feeling bad at all when I got to the last water stop in Wareham, as opposed to previous years when my wrists and neck had all but seized up.
At that checkpoint I also ran into another old friend: former coworker Michael Picard, who was also doing the ride. Yet another familiar face!
From there it was a short 9-mile run to Mass Maritime, although I took my time and didn’t push it too hard on that leg. I arrived at MMA at 1:50, which was a little more than half an hour later than my previous two rides.
The afternoon in Bourne has sadly become very structured: park, find my luggage, eat some chips, call people to let them know I’ve arrived, shower, sign up for a massage, eat while waiting, get the massage, eat some more, meet up with the Quad Cycles crew, then drop off my luggage and head out for my hotel. In a way it’s no longer that relaxing. It’s still nice, but I miss just sitting by the canal, watching the water and soaking up the afternoon sun. And sadly there was no ice cream this year, so that was a real disappointment.
I did run into most of the Quad Cycles crew over the course of the afternoon. In addition to Tony, Charlie, and Jeff, I also saw our friend Ed as he arrived from the alternate Wellesley start. Charlie and I waited for a while for his SO Julie and Caitlin to arrive, but they were to be very late. Meanwhile, Steve walked by and Charlie gave him the massage appointment that he’d made for Julie. And other QC riders— Elena, her sister Maria, and Joe—also showed up to chat for a while, and everyone seemed to have had a wonderful ride.
But all too soon it turned 6pm and time for me to change back into cycling gear for the 15-mile ride to my hotel.
One of my favorite parts of the PMC is the ride up the Cape Cod Canal bike path from Bourne to Sandwich. Because I do it Saturday night, rather than Sunday morning with all the other riders, I find it to be a quiet and relaxing respite. There are no other riders around, and you can hear the catbirds crying from the brush. You come across cormorants sunning themselves on lampposts as the sun sets, and maybe you’ll see the Cape Cod Railroad go by. The water in the canal flows by at a very brisk pace, and it generates a cool breeze that feels wonderful after a long day in the saddle. You go under the two 1933 art deco style bridges that lead on and off the cape, and can set your own pace. I find it about the perfect way to end the day, and it’s always one of the highlights of the ride.
At the hotel, I synched back up with Sheeri and Tony for supper, but I’m usually in bed pretty early. However, having ridden another hour further up the ride route from Bourne meant that I got to sleep an hour later than everyone else in the morning, and that was well worth the fact that I made Saturday into a 128-mile day!
Sunday morning I wasn’t entirely with it. I got myself and all my stuff assembled and had just mounted up when I realized that I had left my helmet in the room. Oops! After ducking back into the room for a moment, I rode up to the ride route and joined the other riders as they tried to shoot the ridiculous rolling hills of the Route 6 service road.
Another benefit of staying where I do is that the first water stop comes after about eight miles, so it’s readily skippable, once more allowing me to get a ways ahead of the main body of riders.
Another mile further on is the spot where I crashed out of the PMC ride back in 2003. I was gratified, saddened, and a little bit amused to discover that they had re-paved a short 100-foot section of the road right where the potholes that caused me to fall had been.
The roads are definitely one of the things that subtly change as you make your way from inland Massachusetts to the coast. Seaside pavement tends to be porous, rough, and patched, and the roads are usually narrow and busy. You see a lot more sand at the side of the road, and cranberry bogs replace the woods that predominated on Saturday.
Despite that, Sunday’s ride is filled with a string of highlights. The two that always seem to get to me are when we past the Cape Cod Sea Camp in Brewster and the Over the Hill girls in Truro. At the former, hundreds of kids line a quarter mile of roadside hedge, screaming their heads off for the riders. At the latter, two aging ladies always dress up and come out to cheer us on with vigor equal to any adolescents. Both are very longstanding PMC traditions, and both have a tendency to evoke tears as one rides by. They’re often the emotional highlight of each year’s ride.
There’s one particular point that I always look forward to on Sunday’s ride. Even though you’ve ridden over three hours and 50 miles out onto the narrow spit of Cape Cod, you don’t actually see the ocean until you hit the aptly-named Ocean View Drive in Wellfleet. I always find that first expansive view of the Atlantic particularly moving. Even living in Boston you don’t get that uninterrupted view of the horizon because you’re deep inside Boston harbor, which is littered with islands. It’s quite breathtaking, and is always a very special moment for me.
At that point, I was pedaling easily along, taking that view in, when a woman rode past me. She wasn’t going much faster than I was, but she was laboring like crazy, panting loudly and staring fixedly at her front wheel. She became my totem for the people who do the ride in a goal-oriented fashion, worrying about their times and never looking up to see the beauty around them. It’s a very apt metaphor for our daily lives, and I felt kinda sad for her in her focus on the bike rather than on the world around the bike.
It wasn’t long afterward that we came off the secondary roads for the final slog up busy Route 6. It’s a very long, exposed section of road that affords no cover from the wind, whether it’s blowing in the prevailing direction off Massachusetts Bay or off the ocean. In the previous 25 years, veterans remember only one year when the wind was favorable along that section; however, this was to be number two. There was still wind, and it still made riding difficult, but it wasn’t anything in comparison to the usual trial of endurance, and I made record time along this final leg of the ride.
However, soon enough we made the counterintuitive turn away from Provincetown to go out through the huge sand dunes of Race Point and back. With the finish line approaching, I marveled that I felt much stronger than usual, and rode into Provincetown with absolutely no physical complaints at all. In fact, I was a bit sad that the ride was over for another year; I felt like I could have gone another 25 miles or more without any problem. Crossing the finish line is always one of the emotional highlights of the ride, and as I coasted down the finishing straight I stood up on my pedals and saluted the audience.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing. I showered and had a fine massage, then got some food and chatted with a volunteer who had lost her husband to cancer. After failing to see any other Quad Cycles riders all day, I ran into Caitlin just after she finished her ride. I met up with Sheeri and Tony and we wandered around Provincetown before heading out to Race Point Beach for my traditional post ride swim and sunbathing. There’s nothing better than floating in the ocean, swaying with the swells and the current on a nice summer day after a long ride, and it’s often the thought of the post-ride swim that keeps me going when the ride gets hard. While we were there, we even ran into Elena and Maria, so the QC crew made their presence known all weekend long.
As the sun set, we had pizza at a place called “Gutsy Bender’s Restaurant” and returned to the hotel in Sandwich for the night before driving back to Boston Monday morning.
Two years ago, I crashed out of the PMC at the start of the second day. I (and many of my sponsors) wondered whether I would return to the event. I guess that year I decided that I didn’t want to leave on a down note, and that impelled me to ride again in 2004.
When that next year’s ride ended, I again wondered whether I’d ridden my last PMC. I’d come back from my crash to finish the ride, but the fundraising had been really difficult, and after four years the ride wasn’t the immense challenge it used to be. However, the cause—curing cancer—remained just as important to me, so I ultimately decided to ride a fifth year.
That brought me to register for this year’s ride, which went amazingly well. It feels a little strange, but I finished this year’s ride with no doubts whatsoever about whether I’ll ride again next year. I most certainly will be doing the Pan-Mass Challenge again next year.
In closing, I’d like to once again thank the people who so generously sponsored me this year. Riding in the PMC is a wonderful experience, but it’s made special because it makes a very real difference. Each year the PMC generates half of the Jimmy Fund’s annual revenue, and although the PMC is required by charter to ensure that over 90% of rider-generated money goes to the charity, last year the organization donated no less than 97 percent. Despite being the biggest athletic fundraiser in the nation, the PMC relies on a paid staff of just eight people, and has a major impact on advancing the state of cancer research, treatment, and prevention.
As the President and CEO of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute said recently, “The PMC has made what we do at Dana-Farber possible. When they write the history of how cancer was conquered, the PMC will be in chapter one”. You are as much a part of that achievement as I, and I thank you wholeheartedly for your role in what we do.
|date||town||time in||time out||hours||temp||miles||avg||max||notes||audio reports|
|sat||Sturbridge||6:01 am||0.0||Met up with Charlie and company right after start|
|sat||Franklin||8:42 am||8:59 am||2:41:09||44.4||16.8||46.4||Jeff joined Charlie and I|
|sat||Dighton||10:42 am||10:59 am||4:24:13||72.5||16.7||46.4||Briefly met Tony; headed onward alone|
|sat||Lakeville||11:50 am||11:59 am||5:15:22||86.7||16.7||46.4|
|sat||Wareham||12:58 pm||1:15 pm||6:14:08||103.5||16.8||46.4||Ran into Mike Picard at rest stop|
|sat||Bourne||1:50 pm||6:17 pm||6:48:28||112.8||16.7||46.4||Big QC party at Bourne!||audio|
|sat||Sandwich||7:20 pm||7:48:05||127.9||16.6||46.4||Rode on to hotel|
|sun||Sandwich||6:24 am||7:48:05||127.9||16.6||46.4||Left hotel|
|sun||Brewster||8:01 am||8:07 am||9:23:43||156.7||16.8||46.4|
|sun||Wellfleet||9:13 am||9:19 am||10:26:00||174.5||16.9||46.4||Last stop!|
|sun||Provincetown||10:27 am||11:34:00||194.8||17.0||46.4||Another ride successfully completed!||audio|