Sunday, June 10, 2012

El Tour de Tucson Ride Report - 2011 Season Wrap

Take That, Type 1 Diabetes (T1D)!

Tucson is a beautiful place. I envy anyone who has had the chance to live there. How fortunate I was to have had a chance to cycle there! I so deeply appreciate that opportunity, which was a result of the support of many who gave to JDRF last year. Our fundraising was a huge success. The Tucson riders received donations totaling more than $400,000. I hear that JDRF riders for all rides in 2011 raised around $5MM! (Pssst.  That's the incredible power you have!)  The Tucson Ride was a great way to end such a successful year. I have collected some of my Tucson experiences below for you. Thanks for your tireless support of Braeden, diabetes research, and JDRF.


Saguaro Cacti give the Sonoran Desert its distinction from all the other dry places I've been. My eyes explored the "forests" of tall, pillar-like cacti on the trek from the Tucson airport to the hotel. Stately and stoic, these giants are at once welcoming and forbidding, holding their huge needled arms up as if to wave hello. After cycling last year at Death Valley, which is mostly scorched earth, I was happy to have entered a different kind of desert, this one with much life.

As a corps of cyclists 150 strong, our job was to train all season, raise diabetes research money, and take out our frustrations on a 111 mile course. But, before we could even assemble at Tucson, a little girl named Mallory beat us all to the finish. Mallory, 6 was the life of our Tucson gathering. She was there to root on her dad, who was riding to give her a cure. Mallory was diagnosed at 2 and was thoroughly disappointed when told she was (way) too young to ride with JDRF. You must be at least 13. But, she wasn't discouraged. Her parents helped her keep tally of the miles as she rode her bike in her neighborhood through the summer. She finished the 111 mile ride before her dad. You can read more about her story here. What an awesome little girl.

Mallory had more than her dad's support. Her uncle was riding in Tucson and completed the 111 mile ride side-by-side with her dad. In fact, uncles were everywhere, including Braeden's favorite, my brother, John. John had prepared as well as anyone for the ride: he raised the money and put in the hours to get in shape. But, just weeks before the ride, he was called by the Be The Match Registry and asked to donate bone marrow to a 4 year old boy with acute leukemia. This left him physically unable to cycle. Yet, he still made the trip and involved himself in the activities as a volunteer. There is no shortage of heroes in the world today.

Mallory, the uncles, and the rest of the cyclists got to meet after arriving on Thursday evening. Following dinner and an opportunity to mingle around campfires under the limitless nighttime desert sky, it was time for a sound night's sleep.


We popped up Friday morning to one of the greatest breakfasts ever. The coffee seemed especially wonderful. Was that just the jet lag talking? Riders had some free time after a safety briefing and shakedown ride. John and I spent these last few hours before the race visiting a relative south of town. We also got a tour of the Caterpillar demonstration facility in Green Valley. The boys would have loved this! We toured the property in a truck driven by a CAT superintendent. There may have been thousands of acres to the site. Gleaming equipment was scattered everywhere and made me feel as if I was in a Titan-scale sand box. There were stadium bleachers constructed under permanent shade in a number of locations that offered student-operators and customers mid-court access to the earthmoving action. Over here, 10 different kinds of motor graders. Over there, three of the largest dozers Caterpillar has ever made. In another area, a colossal dump truck that could easily carry my whole house. I could only press my hands to the truck window and surrender to the kid in me. Some people have such cool jobs.

As John and I returned that evening to the rental car place, we encountered a slight navigational situation and became lost. We were winding our way back on track, when suddenly a motorcycle and rider in front of us toppled to the ground. The rider began writhing, having landed hard on his right leg. John and I quickly parked and assisted the man, who fortunately seemed only stunned. His name was Dwight, and he was a engineer who worked at a defense firm in town. I can still clearly see his face and the "my wife's going to make me sell it this time" look in his eyes. Dwight, keep that two-wheeler upright, my friend.


Race day began for me at 4:20am. We had to organize our kits, eat breakfast, and load the buses by 5:45am for the several-mile long ride to the start chute. The starting gun was to sound at 7:00am. This wasn't going to be like the other JDRF rides of my experience. El Tour de Tucson was open to anyone and had traditionally seen 8,000+ registrants each year counting those who cycled all distances. It was going to take a long time just to line everyone up. (Rumor had it that the most elite lined up at 3am to get the best positions!)

Box trucks loaded with our bikes went before us and were unloaded very early by some awesome volunteers. Our bikes were staged 5 blocks from the starting chute. When the bus convoy arrived at the staging area, it was a sight to take in: the buses belching out 130 cyclists who each set about looking in the cool dark for his or her own machine, filling tires with air, and making certain every accoutrement was tucked, cinched or clipped in for the long ride ahead. Once ready, we cyclists moved en masse to the starting chute. We were a swarm of hornets sulking through the blocks of a night-darkened Tucson. Diabetes had hurled rocks at our nest. Drawn into a battle none of us sought, we buzzed with power, athleticism, and emotion, stingers bared!

When our column reached the start chute, we stopped and stood. It was dark. It was calm. The even hum of conversation faded to white noise and became something like a bubble of silence. With the other century-distance riders, there were 3,100 of us in total. We were a huge and powerful rocket full of fuel, poised and intent on what lay beyond, waiting for ignition.

That's when it hit me.

Amid that constellation of people, the gravity of the journey set upon me. This was the still and pregnant moment that I so deeply need each year. It is when the whole picture becomes assembled before me, and I literally exhale a year's worth of anger, angst and fear. I think about Braeden--his challenges, his brushes with disaster--and my other friends with T1D. It is the type of moment that will ensure I keep coming back for all the years that I'm able. It is diabetes therapy.

T1D is the cause that finds you. It just shows up and pours its hateful wrath upon you. It sends your kid to the hospital in an ambulance. It wakes you up 5 and 6 times a night to wage a silent war over blood glucose. It simultaneously threatens to take your loved one from your world right now and gradually over the years. Even as you deny it a swift victory through luck, love and care, T1D gains ground by withering your kid's circulatory system and hastening blindness, kidney failure and nerve damage.

In the darkness of that cool Tucson morning, I shed my soul of all these things and let them burn in a fire of healing.

And then, those beautiful words to our national anthem roused me back to the here and now.

A quick prayer.

The starting pistol.

Finally, with every bit of the irrevocable intent of a coursing moon rocket, we began to vibrate and shudder in the chute. Each waited until the cyclist ahead began to move. At first, just a few were rolling. Then, it was a hundred. Eventually, thousands were clearing the chute. At my position well back in the queue, I saw daylight and began to inch forward some seven minutes after the gun.

For all of the rocket analogy, it was truly a slow start.

But not necessarily smooth! Tucson's roads are subjected to enormous swings in temperature and are typically rough as a result. I saw someone puncture a tire just 3 or 5 miles in. At one point maybe 20 miles in, we found ourselves bunny hopping 6-inch wide chasms where asphalt expansion joints had been placed and later crumbled away. The gaps came along every few yards for at least a half mile. Certainly a number of folks had to have expensive dental work redone after this section.

With enough teeth remaining to drink Cytomax (try it if you like Gatorade), we continued on and found my brother working a refreshment station near mile 25. He was well into making the 900 peanut butter sandwiches he would serve that day. He gave us a Peter Pan grin, cleaned off his hands and snapped some photos of us before sending us off with more water and some goodies for our jersey pockets. Here, about 8 of us formed a nice pace line and proceeded to wind our way counterclockwise around the perimeter of Greater Tucson with 86 miles to go.

The pace line is a beautiful expression of teamwork. Cyclists line up front to back and take advantage of the slipstream that the leader creates. I have heard that a rider in the 3rd or 4th position can benefit from a 40% energy savings as compared to a rider going it alone. The leader often rotates off the front position after a minute or two and takes up residence at the back of the line. Over time, the pace line displays a complex choreography as it rotates, overtakes competitors, and snakes around obstacles in its path. This dance takes place in a small space: often only 6 to 12 inches separate the front tire of one bike from the rear tire of the preceding one. Smooth movements and constant communication are the name of the game in a pace line, and riding in a good one is nothing short of pure joy.

Our pace line thusly continued, and the miles melted. At mile 60, we stopped for a lengthy break to charge our batteries and have a snack lunch. Then, we resumed our lightning fast dosey doe until we reached mile 93 for another break. John, who had crossed town to serve us again, was now offering Fig Newtons and other tasty snacks. Note to Brother: you'll never be outdone!

The long hours of training kicked in as our pace line pulled out of this last rest stop. For my part, I felt great and relished the way I was triumphing over fatigue. How blessed I am to be able to say this, for I've never had a right to even dream of being in that kind of shape. Our pace line soon began to pass dozens of cyclists with each mile. Not once were we passed in that last section. Spectators on the curb would raise their hands and exuberantly exclaim things like "that's a tight, good-looking line," and "way to go!" Decked in identical jerseys, we looked smart. We kept our wheels tucked neatly in line. Everything clicked perfectly. I don't know about the other guys, but I was thoroughly enjoying every moment! I guess I know what a BMW feels like.

Now, as the course brought us back into the blocks, cross walks, and red lights of the city, a distinctly new emotion crept over me: it was a somber and matter-of-fact urging. The cheering fans were miles back. The streets, blocked from traffic for our unimpeded freight train, seemed too big, too empty. My soul slackened its toothy smile. The centerpiece of our season was all but done. Our day of railing against T1D had been unbridled fun. But, tomorrow would be like always. Our pace line, today held together as with mortis and tenon bonds, would tomorrow scatter on the wings of jetliners to distances no bicycle could contemplate. This was IT. A few more turns, a couple more miles.

I think we all felt something change as the finish line approached. As a group we took up the difficult decision about which among us should lead the group across the line. We had each been in the front an approximately equal amount of time. None wanted to beat the others to the end. Neither did any want to be thrust forward as if being deserving of distinction. Then we had the best idea of the whole day. We would ride across the finish line abreast. We would all finish together, creating one of those rare and awesome images that I will recall forever. What a finish! What a perfect ride!

I have written much in this space. But, no number of words can really convey everything I feel in connection with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Braeden, and my many friends who are living with T1D. The love shown by all of you, my supporters, should be rewarded with the full texture of my experiences, which you have enabled; I wish I could write that well. Thank you so much for your contributions and encouragement. Thank you for partnering to provide a cure to Braeden.

Thank you for your support of JDRF.

Cure, Treat, Prevent.


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