Twilight over Tioga Lake

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Longest Journey--AIDS Lifecycle 9

It began with a ten mile ride to the beach.

Having finally purchased a bike--six months after registering for AIDS Lifecycle 9!--I could not put off training any longer. My friend Matt from work, who had done the ride a few times before, assured me I was already in way better shape than half the people that did the ride. He advised I start doing the weekly training rides that went up to Marin, and were now in the 50 mile range. This was sometime in March.

I couldn't imagine doing a 30 mile ride, much less the 60-100 miles that would happen in a day on the ride itself. And yet, somehow, I would end up doing just that.

I decided to do the AIDS Lifecycle almost a year ago. I did not have a bike, any equipment, nor a clue about serious biking. Basically, I was of that nebulous mind set that I wanted to "do something good for the world and good for myself." And my friends Joe, Lars, and Matt had all participated in the past and had almost exclusively positive things to say about it.

In February I finally bought the bike and did that ten mile ride. It felt so good and free to be on a bike again--I had completely forgotten that feeling. Soon I did a 17 mile ride, then a 30 mile loop of the city was under my belt. I did my first training ride, a 50 mile up to Woodacre. Thanks to five years of spin class, I did not have to walk any part of the two formidable hills we encountered. I continued going to the gym and rode my bike to work a few times a week. On the weekend, the training rides increased their mileage. 60 miles, 72 miles, 84 miles, and then eventually we did a century up to Petaluma. I went to my boyfriend Dan's house after the 100 mile and I was so out of it I remember nothing of that evening. I imagine eating and sleeping was all I did. I still never walked my bike or used a sweep vehicle, and continually amazed myself that I could this.

Nutrition and training workshops, many fundraising letters, a fundraising party and an event at work helped steer me towards my goals. The training rides consumed my weekends, and I pretty much lacked a life. But I knew I would be thankful for the sacrifice once the ride came.

And then suddenly the school year was over. Despite a great year and wonderful kids and co-teachers, I was considerably less emotional than usual since the distraction of a 545 mile ride hovered in my mind. The ride began that Sunday. On Saturday we had Orientation day, where we brought our bikes to the Cow Palace, got checked in, and watched a mandatory safety video. I heard all this stuff about how you would have to wait in long lines on O day, but everything I did was a breeze and everyone was really helpful. The safety video, though to be taken seriously had a good dose of humor and raunchiness in it, such as a full on ass shot of someone applying butt balm--foreshadowing the mindset of the ride itself.

That night I read over my list a million times, laid out my helmet and bike accoutrements, ordered a cab for 4:30 in the morning, and managed to get about two hours of sleep. And then it began.

Day One--Riders in the fog

Click clack, click, clack. That was the main sound, the sound of bike shoe clips on concrete floors, in the vast Cow Palace Sunday morning. I forced some food down (now free, as was just about everything from then on!) and kept pacing in neurotic circles, too nervous to sit down. Happily I saw my fellow rider Matt with his room mate and our mutual friend Rebecca to see him off. It was comforting to be with some familiar faces at the dawn of this monumentous occasion.

We were all herded into the arena to the tune of cheesy inspirational music and cheers from well wishers and roadies, and there the goose bumps began. Here I was; it was happening! Matt and I crowded up to the very front, where the speakers threatened to deafen us. After some welcoming speeches, the Positive Pedalers marched down the middle of the crowd carrying tribute banners with messages to loved ones who had passed away because of HIV or AIDS. They also brought out the "riderless bike" which represents all the people who could not be with us because they had passed away. It was one of the many emotional and powerful moments of the week.

You may be wondering who the Positive Pedalers are. I certainly had never heard of them before I started training for the ride. They are a group of HIV positive men and women bike riders who have been coming together and creating positive publicity for themselves for I think 15 years now. Their main goal is to eliminate the stigma associated with HIV status. It may seem that we've come a long way since the days of banning children from schools and Magic Johnson from basketball, but there is still a great deal of prejudice surrounding people with HIV or AIDS. One heart wrenching fellow rider's story was about her young nephew with HIV who was not allowed to swim in a public pool. I found the Positive Pedalers incredibly inspiring. Many of them also totally kicked my ass in the ride itself.

Anyway, the mood in the arena made a dramatic switch as an insanely ripped and energetic young man got up front to lead us in stretches. "All right everybody! Get those feet moving, put your hands up, you've got a long ride ahead of you!" Laughing excitedly, we got our bodies warmed up. Then a couple more inspirational speeches, and it was time to go!

The hisses of tires being pumped and the clack of clips onto pedals resonated throughout the big hall with all the bikes. I smeared on some sunscreen, made sure my bento boxes were secured, tightened my helmet, and took one last deep breath. "Ok, Arrow," I whispered to my bike. "This is it. Be a good bike and carry me safely through this journey." You do what helps calm your nerves, including talking to your bike.

Then along with 1950 other cyclists, I pedaled out into the fog. My mom later told me she watched a video of that moment, and started crying. I felt happiness quivering throughout my entire body. Hundreds of supporters were lined up all the way through the Cow Palaces huge parking lot, and onto the street. I could hardly believe so many people made it out here so damn early in the morning to cheer us on; I almost teared up. Hearing our friends yell "Go Elissa!" gave me another boost of already overflowing adrenaline. We were on our way.

Now I have lived in SF for more than 10 years, and have seen my share of foggy days. There are all types of fog--the block out the whole sky white variety, the swirly wispy kind that is fun to watch, the really damp one that feels almost like it's raining, the cold gray fog of sadness after a sunny spell. But the fog we rode through that early morning was one the thickest and wettest I've ever experienced. As we left the city, I could barely see 20 feet in front of me and I was completely soaked with a half hour. I just laughed. Our lunch stop, somewhere along route 1, was still fog covered and weirdly warm. It was like being under a giant wet blanket. But soon enough fog gave way to abundant sunshine, and we would hardly see a cloud again for the rest of the week.

Much of our route down to Santa Cruz was along Route 1, the road that hugs the coast. I have driven that way a multitude of times, and was always grateful for being so close to its beauty. But everything is so different from a bike! You notice curves of the road, can smell the sea breeze, and notice peculiarities about the landscape that you never would from a car. I am so lucky to be doing this!!! I screamingly thought to myself over and over.

One constant throughout the whole ride was how people from local communities came out to support us. People of all ages and backgrounds stood on the streets with signs, candy and strawberries for us, or just simply cheered. And while Santa Cruz is a liberal place, that cannot be said for everywhere we passed through--some towns were extremely small and rural. And yet I at least did not hear one negative comment. There was one woman on the side on the road in a chair on Day One, and she did not look so good. "Thank you for riding for me!" she weakly shouted as I rode past. Yowsers. I had to swallow back tears that time. She was one of many living reminders of why I was doing this.

Around four I finally rode into Santa Cruz camp, to the sound of cheering roadies shouting "Welcome to Santa Cruz! Welcome home!" Every day they did that, and every time it felt like they were cheering just for me. Santa Cruz camp was a nice grassy park bordered by a redwood grove. I was anxious to sent up my tent and meet my tent mate since I hadn't yet. She hadn’t arrived, so I had to set it up on my own. Now I am a seasoned camper, but putting together one when you’re smashed in with almost 2000 other people is not easy. I was certain I was going to poke out someone’s eye with one of the poles. Luckily, our nice neighbors Cheryl and Roxie helped me out.

I finally met Ruth, a very sweet and spunky middle aged woman. She as a newbie like me, and also very mom-like. It was kind of nice to have a "mom" for company on the ride!

The food was indeed hot and good, and I inhaled a fair amount of it. Then, it was pretty much time for bed.


Day 2 WHEEEEEEEEEE!

Even with my heavy duty earplugs in, I still was awakened by other campers getting up around 5:00 am. The route didn't even open until 6:30--was that necessary? But I soon learned the routine of packing up, taking down your tent, bringing all the crap to the trucks, and eating breakfast was not a fast process. Ruth and I usually woke up around 5:30--once we "slept in" until 6! But your grogginess soon dissipates when you see your roadies wearing neglige and blasting 80’s music by 6:30.

So Day 2 was the 107 mile day. That is damn long. This day would have many obstacles and many fun parts, and turned out to be one of the best days of my life.

We had a heard a million times that the rush hour traffic out of Santa Cruz was really bad in the morning, and we should get an early start to avoid it. Well, the traffic problem wasn’t the cars, it was all us riders! And I don’t think there was any way to avoid it. For about 8 miles it was just intersection after intersection, and at least 20 of us moving as a herd together. How would I ever finish in time?? It got quite frustrating, although I tried to be zen about it. At one point I turned to a fellow rider and asked, “Are we in purgatory?”

But it did eventually end, and soon we were cruising along long stretches of roads next to sweet smelling strawberries. I talked for a while to an older man named John who said he regularly rode 80 mile rides, and sold catalogs to teachers (I think my school gets it.) That was a funny thing about the ride is you would have a conversation with someone behind you or in front, and never see his or her face! Most of the time I enjoyed the quiet time of riding on my own, but occasionally company was nice.

At the lunch stop I discovered I had a flat tire, and also that my newly bought $30 gloves were missing. Bummer. But I still was making good time. Cannondale bikes donated their services to us and fixed bike issues for free, one of the many perks we got. Miraculously, that was the only flat I got on the entire ride! Some people got a few in one day. Thank you Arrow and your nice sturdy tires.

With 55 miles to go, the fun really began. Now we were more in the country, and had nice long flat or long rolling stretches, with a tailwind. The Bay Area has plenty of big hills, but soaring along flat stretches is not something I get to do there. It was so much fun! Seriously, I was flying with the biggest smile on my face.

When I got to rest stop 4, there was only a half hour left. Rest stops have specific opening and closing times, and if you don’t make it in time you will be picked up by a sweep and brought into camp. I really did not want that to happen, unless there was something seriously wrong with me or my bike.

I felt something special happened next, though maybe it was all in my mind. It seemed that all us riders that were still at the stop collectively rallied to get into camp on time. Everyone quietly got organized and got back on our bikes, and headed out, steadfastedly determined to make this happen. Even though I wasn’t talking with anyone, I felt a connection between all of us.

There was one more unofficial stop before we headed into camp, however--the Cookie Lady! This is just one of the many examples of people from local communities coming out to support us. This woman (don’t even know her real name) bakes thousands of delicious cookies and gives them to the riders for free. While I think everyone appreciates a free treat and generous people, there is a whole new level of appreciation for this type of thing you can’t understand until your butt has been in the saddle for almost a hundred miles.

For a short stretch we had these horrible side winds, and I almost got blown over several times. Where were the tail winds we had been promised? Finally we made a right turn onto some rolling hills and then--wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! The strong wind was behind us, and literally pushed us up hills and then went swooping down, roller coaster style. To our left was hills, and a large valley filled with growing produce was to our right. It was very different than anywhere I had ever been, and I felt so thankful and alive. After the annoying stopping and going in Santa Cruz, the flat tire and lost gloves, the thinking I wasn’t going to make it and the side winds, this was the ultimate reward. When I rode into King City amidst applause, I felt incredibly accomplished.

King City’s campground was at an interesting county park that had relics of yesteryear on display, like a old caboose and mining equipment. It was also quite chilly, and the only night I had to wear a hat. Ruth and I had dinner together, and I learned a lot about her, such as she was a writer and had published her own book.

I tried every night to hear the camp announcements and news. The speakers, which including the CEO of the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, a man I think was one of the ones in charge of the ride, and fellow riders were all great speakers and often hysterical. Sometimes they told stories, sometimes showed videos. Often they were more emotional and showed true life tales of people who had barely lived to tell their stories of surviving with HIV or AIDS. Other times they were funny vignettes from the day.

One night the Lifecycle guy asked how many of us were getting up to use the port-o's in the middle of the night. About half of us raised our hands (not me.) He said, "That should have been ALL of you! You should be hydrated so much that your brain and your bladder have a battle at night--and your bladder wins!" I laughingly drank more water that night, and sure enough, around 2 am had to get up. It was kind of hilarious--many other riders were out in various stages of zombie emptying their bladders.

Day 3 More like Quadyawner

I felt pretty crappy when I woke up on Day 3. My body was saying, “Um, why do you hate me??” I felt better after eating, as was pretty much always the case. A typical breakfast for me was a big bowl of oatmeal, pancakes, sausage, yogurt, muffin, and chocolate milk (which had never tasted so good in my life.) I never had a problem hydrating, but if I started to feel bad on the ride, it meant I needed to eat. A couple times I felt close to “bonking”--not eating enough when doing extreme physical activity and your body starts to digest its reserves. I arrived at lunch one day so out of it, I could not put my bike in bike parking correctly. Finally a roadie said, "Sweetie, let me do this and you go eat." Once for lunch we had a foot long burrito that was as thick as two of my fists. And I ate it all and more. Yes, this was my dream come true--I could eat all I wanted!

Day 3 was a “short day,” only 67 miles. But the formidable and much talked about Quadbuster was in the beginning of the day. Honestly, I wasn’t worried about it because of all the training I had done in the Bay Area, where on some days we went up about 10 miles of hills. When I got on my bike, I suddenly had serious doubts about myself. The first 10 miles were pretty flat, and yet I could barely pedal. And my butt was freakin’ killing me. How the hell was I going to get up Quadbuster? I had visions of having to shamefully walk up part of it and almost started crying. But after the first rest stop, I felt fine. This happened to be the next couple of days--the very beginning of the ride was brutal, and then I warmed up and felt great. Unfortunately, the butt hurt would continue until the end--all part of the game.

Quadbuster was a decently challenging hill, but thanks to those sacrificed Saturdays on rides out to Nicasio, I went up it no problem. Not super fast by any means, but I never stopped or had to walk. At the top there were lots of riders and roadies cheering us on, which of course nice. The “sound sweep” car, a SUV with a giant speaker on top, was blasting Journey which never hurts. My friend Matt was at the top, and said “Wow, Elissa, you did it!” Matt had done the ride a few times before and was a considerably faster rider than me. He said he was quite impressed with my training and how well I had done for a beginner. It felt good to get up the Quad, and of course even more good to soar down the other side.

The rest of the day was pretty chill. We went through some serious rural country--lots of grassland and oak trees. The smell of growing hay reminded me of home. One town the ride passes through is Bradley, population 120. Every year the town’s one school has a big bbq just for us. The money they raise from it goes to their school and provides scholarships for the few students graduating and going to college. I thought it was so wonderful that such a small community is a part of this, and how we end up helping each other. It speaks highly of this place that they are not afraid to introduce their young people to being aware of HIV and different types of people out there. And of course it was damn exciting to have a hamburger!

I made another friend that day, a very nice guy named Michael from Dallas, Texas. He rode behind me for a while and we talked about all sorts of stuff, and told me “good job” whenever I hydrated. I ran into Michael several more times for the rest of the ride and he always called me “sweetie." It is amazing how friendly people were on the Ride, even after being on a bike in 90 degree heat for 8 hours.

Towards the end of the day we passed into Paso Robles, another very rural area with lots of small farms and “Keep Out! signs on property. I couldn’t believe I was in the same state as San Francisco; it felt like another universe. The campground there was in a weird county fair park, and we had to camp on dirt. Not my favorite one, though we did get to eat inside a giant barn which was novel. I remember being so hot at the end of that day, I had to take two showers. It was hot most of the Ride, actually. Many days I soaked a bandana in ice water and wore it around my neck (thanks Ruth for that idea!) and only once wore my long sleeves. At night it always cooled off.


Day 4 Over the hump

I woke up on Day 4 feeling kind of blah again, and had a feeling it was going to be a tough one. But soon we would be half way to LA, and that was pretty exciting.

We had been told we would be going up some big hills called the Evil Twins, and then a few more called the three Sisters or something like that. Whatever--we went up and over a mountain. At the half way to LA point we were clearly up very high--all golden hills and the wonderfully blue ocean not far in the distance. I would have to wait a long while to have my picture taken with the “Half Way to LA!” sign, but since it was my first time I wanted to do it. Almost everyone lifts their bike up over their head, but I didn’t think I would be able to, so settled for the bike at my side and the fist raised in triumph look. I think it came out pretty good, if I say so myself.

Then it was another “wheeeeeee!” time down the other side, and that is when I realized we went over a mountain. It seriously took forever to get to the other side, and then we were back at the coast. I was happy to be by my beloved sea once again.

The route in the middle part of the day took us through the southern part of the Central Coast, a really beautiful area. We went through the achingly adorable town of Cayucos, which I kind of want to move to. Then it was further south to Pismo Beach and the Morro Bay area. Things started to have a more SoCal feel to them. I really want to go back to many of these places we went--in a car, which is considerable less painful on the rear region.

We turned away from the coast again and started winding through small towns and woodsy areas. At one random point in the seeming middle of nowhere, a man said “Welcome to Southern California!” Random, but ok!

I can’t write more without mentioning “Safety Guy.” Safety Guy is a man who was somewhere along the route on every day of the ride. Most of the time he dressed in a condom costume reminding us to be safe, but sometimes he was a giant Viagra. Then he would say, “Thanks for keeping it up!” Ha ha ha!

Several points throughout this long day, I just wanted to cry. I can’t say why exactly, as I didn’t feel that sore or tired. I guess I was a little lonely and really wanted to talk to my family or my boyfriend Dan. They and other friends and family had been sending me wonderful text messages, but I needed to hear loved one’s voices. I decided I would really try to find a hidden outlet at the next campground for my phone and give them a call.

We went through more growing country later in the day, and some small towns that seemed entirely populated by immigrant workers. Once again, they were incredibly friendly people (many of them children) who came out to wave to us. I have a whole new appreciation for these people who work the fields. The director of the LA Gay and Lesbian center Lorri, who spoke during dinner every night, told a really sweet story. She said that one day on the ride when we were going by lots of produce fields, a Mexican woman in a truck pulled up next to her and asked what was going on. Lorri explained to her about our cause and the riders, and how the money raised helps people. The woman looked thoughtful and drove away. About an hour later, the woman found Lorri again. She had gone around to the other workers and collected some money for our cause--$3.17. These hard working people do not make much money, and it was an incredibly nice thought that they did this. I know there is a lot of controversy about immigration these days, but if you like your strawberries and broccoli, think twice about where it came from and who it took to get it to your plate.

I had a really hard time towards the end of this ride. It was just so damn long--and for me at least, not very nice scenery. We went through some pretty depressed towns, and rather drab farming landscape. I barely made it to rest stop 4 on time. I felt so emotionally and physically exhausted, I seriously doubted by ability to make it the rest of the way. I even started walking my bike to the SAG rack, which would bring me and my bike back by bus. “There’s a good tail wind the last ten miles, riders! You can do it!” I heard a roadie shout. Wait a minute, Elissa, I thought. Take stock of yourself. There is nothing seriously wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with your bike. Now think of why you are doing this. The woman on the side of the street, thanking me for riding for her. The incredibly Positive Pedalers, who are doing the seeming impossible. The HIV+ young man who spoke at dinner last night, saying he would not be alive today if it were not for the services provided by the organizations that we were benefiting. I could DO this. And I did. I got back on my bike and was pushed towards by strong tail winds. Despite the surrounding areas not being so great, Santa Maria’s campground was my favorite. Nice and grassy, and all the service tents close by. I found an electrical outlet and lay sprawled on the grass while I waited for my turn to charge my phone, and felt relaxed and content. Then I had a talk with my mom and dad and Dan, and was much recharged after that.

Day 5 Mother Nature at her most adorable and at her meanest

Ruth and I awoke on Day 5 to the sounds of raucous laughter all around us. It was Red Dress Day, a tradition going back a few years on the Ride. The idea started when a rider thought everyone looked like a ribbon winding up a hill, and well wouldn’t it be cool if everyone was wearing red so we looked like the AIDS support red ribbon?? People’s creativity had already shown through many times on this ride--there was a lady who dressed as a clown in full makeup everyday, the guy that rode with ET in the front of his basket, the Chicken Lady--but Red Dress day was everyone’s turn to shine. There was such an array of costumes--fishnet dresses, super heroes, crabs, sea anenomes made from oblong balloons, Where’s Waldo--incredible. I was sort of Where’s Waldo on top, with Snoopy boxer shorts on the bottom, and red ribbons on my helmet. I think every single straight guy was wearing a dress. And they all got applause for their brave efforts at dinner that night!

The route started out innocuous enough, winding through pleasant towns and such. At one point I saw all these riders pulled over. They had found a field of miniature ponies, including babies! And I’m talking mini--the babies were the size of a beagle. I’m already a major horse lover, and this was the damn cutest thing I had ever seen. Seriously, man or woman, gay or straight, everyone there was cooing “Awwwww!” The ponies even came right up to us. There were a couple other times on the ride where I got to pat a dog or cat or horse, and it would seriously brighten my day. The littlest things make you happy when you’ve ridden a bike for 400 miles.

Things stopped getting cute soon after that. The scenery was nice enough--rolling hills and vineyards that I imagine were like Tuscany. Now the reason the ride goes from SF to LA is because the wind generally blows southward, providing us with nice tailwinds. However, that is not a guarantee, as we learned on Day 5. Head winds up to 30 miles an hour blasted us all the way to camp. It was brutal, and completely zapped my energy. I refused to let it get me down, but it certainly got to others. At one rest stop, people were gathering their resources to get them home. "I need to emotionally prepare myself for this," one man sighed. One woman was complaining, “I hear there is a big hill ahead, along with these f******* winds! Why are they making this so hard for us?” Hmmm. So did the Lifecycle people order these winds to make it “so hard?” I couldn’t help saying something, directed at the surrounding people, not just her. “Well,” I said, “we did choose to be here.” The woman didn’t say anything, but others thoughtfully nodded. Nobody was making us do this, and we could choose to whine and complain or to suck it up and remember why we were doing this.

It really amazed me how many people were not prepared for the Ride in general. To be fair, you could never really know what to expect until you do it. But many people were in horrible pain, had a really hard time setting up and living in camp, or just felt the Ride was so “extreme.” Hell yeah, it’s extreme! I think most of them still had an amazing time, but did not get everything out of it they could have. And I think they simply did not train, educate, and mentally prepare themselves properly. My coworkers and house mates and boy can attest to what a nut I was and how I had no life by May, but I felt adequately prepared and once again, am thankful for my sacrifices.

Anyway, I persevered and made in to camp once again. And once again, I couldn’t believe I continued to do every single mile.

Day 6 So much beauty in the world

Day 6 already? I couldn't believe it. It was kind of bizarre--my butt barely hurt that day. I felt pretty great over all. I guess that come with knowing you're heading down the home stretch, and your body somehow adjusting to the madness. It certainly didn't hurt to see our beloved camp truck roadies decked out in their finest white trash outfits, complete with pillows under shirts and yummy snacks for us such as Spam and marshmallows! Such theatrics may sound silly, but believe me, the tireless and creative roadies really help put a smile on your aching body.

So many beautiful sights awaited us on Day 6, from Lompoc to Ventura. We went up and over a big hill, and then happily out to the coast once again. Things truly felt like Southern California now--palm trees, deep blue ocean, lots of beaches with people cruisin' by on their cruisers, and perfect sunny skies with an ocean breeze. We passed through Santa Barbara, former college home to many of my friends. I already liked SB, but it gets major points now for hosting "Paradise Pit" for us riders. Every year, residents and local businesses create an unofficial rest stop where we can have all the ice cream and cookies we want for free. They do it just because they really support our cause. I have never had such good rocky road in my life. Thank you, SB!

The road out to Ventura may have been my favorite so far. We cruised along mostly flat roads and bike paths (always a treat to get off the street) that hugged the coast, lined with flowering trees and palms. What a wonderful near end to this incredible experience. My thoughts overflowed with the people I loved and the undying support they had shown me, and all I had done to get here. I couldn't stop smiling.

Many people besides our roadies cheered us into Ventura. We camped right near the beach here, and for the first time the night was almost warm. This night on the ride is special because everyone participates in a candle light vigil. After the evening announcements, everyone grabs a candle and heads down to the beach in near silence. The sight of all the glowing candles under the turquoise twilit sky was a beautifully somber sight. Eventually everyone sat in a big circle, and it was truly amazing to see how many of us were there, gathered together in quiet solidarity. I thought about my dad's friend Joe, who was HIV positive and had died a few years ago. He was a very sweet and exuberant man who never let his situation get him down. I also thought of all the other people who had died, many of them possible friends I never got to meet.

After some time, most people walked to the ocean's edge to extinguish their candle. While that is a cool idea, I knew Joe was a unique man and thought he would appreciate something different. I scooped up some sand and let it fall onto the candle until it went out. I slept peacefully that night, basking in the togetherness of this temporary but incredible community, and the excitement of finishing tomorrow.

Day 7 Life changing, heart warming, hope affirming

Camp had a distracted, jaunty feel to it in the morning. Everyone was eager to get on the road, and yet this was the last time we would all be together. In my typical neurotic fashion, I started getting worried I wouldn't be able to find everyone that I wanted to say goodbye to. Eventually I relaxed and figured that these things just seem to work out.

Once again, we had another pretty easy, gorgeous ride. At one point 101 stops being a highway, and it was hills and cliffs against the pounding surf. We went up through Malibu, and supposedly past Cher's house. It was rather cloudy when we started out. A couple girls from my training rides commented about it at a rest stop. "Yes, but when we get to the finish line, the sun will break through and it will be beautiful and magical!" I proclaimed. They agreed that would be magical, but doubted it would happen. What do you know, I ended up being right!

We had our final lunch in the shadow of Pepperdine University, overlooking the ocean. Fortunately, I saw almost everyone I would have wanted to say goodbye to. Ruth my tent mate, Matt and his new friends, training leader Kurt, Michael from Texas, and various folks from my training rides.

And then it was down the home stretch. The sun started shining as we entered LA, and more and more people started appearing along the roads, cheering on friends and family. I started feeling giddy and a little nervous for the ending. I was in contact with Dan about meeting up with me at the end, and it seemed I would get there a little before him. I could have waited, but I was just too excited. It was ok if he didn't see me ride in; I was just so happy he would be there in general.

Unbelievably soon, I approached the Veterans Affairs Center, the ending the of the Ride. We were funneled through a gauntlet of hundreds of cheering people. The love was overwhelming. First I started crying, and then I threw my head back laughing in pure joy. I heard my training ride leader Joseph, such a sweet and supportive guy, in the crowd clanging his cowbell and yelling, "Yay Elissa!! You did it!" And then I pulled into the grassy finish area. I DID do it! Every single mile.

I finished near the same time as Eric and some other training ride folks, so we happily hugged and rejoiced together. I saw Ruth shortly afterward also, and we exchanged big hugs and loudly proclaimed how awesome we were. Dan was still a few minutes away, so I stood at the end and cheered for my fellow riders. Despite being filthy, sweaty, and disheveled, and I felt great and so full of life at that moment. I called my parents and texted my friends and brother and sister the happy news. My wonderful mom said, "I never doubted for a second you could do it, Lissa! You are my hero!"

Finally my baby and I found each other, and we fell teary eyed into each other's arms. It felt so good to hug him and be with someone close to me. We chilled on the grass for a little while, and I picked up my victory t-shirt and all that good stuff. I wanted to stay for the closing ceremonies, but was starting to feel the exhaustive week crash down on me, so we decided to get going.

I'm sure the closing ceremonies were wonderful, but there is a reason I'm glad we did not stay for them. On our way out, I ran into Jo, my cyclist representative. All riders are assigned a rep to help them with training, fundraising, and just the whole daunting aspect of preparing for the ride. Though we had met only a couple times before, we had emailed a lot and she was essential to my participating in the ride. Around January I was doing decently with fundraising, but had not bought a bike yet and was seriously doubting that I could afford one. She gave me some pointers and encouraged me to find a way, which I did. Then I was really scared to start to the training rides, and once again she gave me the boost I needed to start.

I had my huge backpack on when Jo saw me and came running over to us. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and slapped me ten, almost knocking me over because my bag was so heavy. I told her, "Jo, I did it!! I did every single mile--never walked, never took the bus. I couldn't have done it without your help!"

Then she said, "Elissa, I never doubted you could do it. I am so proud of you!" She even gave Dan a hug and asked him, "Are you so proud of your girl?" To which he responded, "Are you kidding? She's amazing!"

I'm really glad I got to see her again--and thanks again, Jo! And thank you everyone, new friends and old, family and families of others for being a part of my journey. Believe me, I thought of all of you on the Ride and could not have done it without all the ways you supported me.

I was lucky to have the perfect R and R after the Ride. I went with Dan to his parent's house in North County where we sprawled on beaches, were fed copious amounts of food, and slept about 12 hours a night. I felt completely recovered soon, and a week and a half later was on my bike again--albeit on pretty mellow rides.

"I can see why this is the type of thing that gets addictive," a fellow rider said at some point on the Ride. Several hundred people already signed up for next year. When I ran into Matt back at work, he laughingly said he just signed up again. Next year will be AIDS Lifecycle's 10th anniversary, which will make it even more special than usual. I haven't signed up yet, but I am seriously considering it. I am really hoping to recruit some of you to join me!

I think nearly everyone believes Lifecycle is a great cause, but in talking to people I realized many do not fully understand how it helps those with HIV or AIDS. "There is no cure, and probably never will be a cure for AIDS, so why bother?" some cynics actually say. I can tell you there is SO much more to looking for a cure involved. The SF AIDS Foundation and the LA Gay and Lesbian Center are the two beneficiaries of Lifecycle. One major thing they do is promote HIV testing so people know their status and then hopefully do not spread it if they are positive. The funding they receive allows them to provide testing in poorer areas such as the Tenderloin in SF.

The organizations also provide numerous resources and support for people who have the disease. They also do general education and outreach to the public, and help organizations in other countries such as South Africa, where AIDS is devasting the population. I heard about or personally talked to several people who said they were alive today because of the services provided by SFAF or LAGALC. And yes, some of the money does go to research towards finding cures, effective treatments for symptoms, and a vaccine. Personally, while I think finding a cure is a long ways off, I do think a vaccination could happen in my lifetime. AIDS Lifecycle raised $11 million dollars for these organizations that will make a life or death difference in many, many people’s lives.

I think many people feel they are somehow immune to HIV or AIDS, and some still believe it is a "gay disease." Remember, anyone of any sex, age, race, or sexual orientation can get it. If you or someone you know may be at risk for HIV, please encourage them to get tested. The organizations I mentioned can provide testing in a free, safe, and non-judgemental atmosphere. For more info and just to learn more about them in general, check out their websites. http://www.lagaycenter.org http://www.sfaf.org/

Ok, thank you for listening to my diatribe...I am basically trying to say there that is a long way to go in fighting HIV and AIDS, and much more involved than finding a cure. I remember long ago seeing a quote from Kenneth Cole that said, "Sick of hearing about people with AIDS? In time, they'll go away." Tragically, the men, woman, and children with AIDS will go away. But the disease itself will not if we sit idly by. And one super fun and inspiring way to help is by doing AIDS Lifecycle!

So many people were incredibly supportive of me doing the ride, but said "I could never ride 560 miles." I am telling you that you can! Unless you are having a baby soon (a lot of you, I know) and you can make some time commitments to fundraising and training, you CAN do the ride. I would love to have more company next year if I decide to do it. It was truly the most life changing, heart warming, and hope affirming event I have ever done. Come on, people....who's with me? :)


































































1 comment:

herbivortex said...

nice elissa--you're hard core & more :) beth

About Me

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San Francisco, CA
Elissa is an east coast transplant making her way through life by way of San Francisco. This amazing city provides lots of fodder for writers of all types. I find inspiration for writing through life's little and bizarre events, such as grocery shopping for dog treats, salamander hunting, and insomnia. I am a preschool teacher in "real life."