As summer approaches and the bike rides grow longer, I find myself thinking about the upcoming Pan Ohio Hope Ride. This year will be my tenth bicycle trek across Ohio – a number that seems unbelievable when I reflect back on how it all started. This ride – and my bicycle itself – has been such a huge part of the last decade of my life. As I think of the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met, I can’t imagine my life without wheels, and I shudder to think of where I’d be without them.
There needs to be a bit of back story here. My dad was diagnosed with cancer in October of 2005 and passed away in February of 2006. I don't really know how to describe that feeling, and I'm sure it's different for everyone, but for me, it was a moment that all at once aged me beyond my years yet left me feeling like a lost little girl. I think the "experts" tell you not to make any major life decisions within a year of something so emotionally significant, but I'm not too good at following expert advice. So by April, I had quit my job without any real plan, and in December, my marriage ended. Most of 2007 is a blur to me – I was not in a good place, and far too many nights were spent staring into the bottom of a bottle.
By spring of 2008, I knew I either needed to change my lifestyle or I'd likely not make it to 40, at least not in any shape to actually enjoy life. I had not gotten any real exercise in a couple years, and I had no energy, no motivation, and no enthusiasm for life. Many days, it was all I could do to get out of bed. The prior year, my brother had started riding a bike and had greatly improved his health and fitness, and I had a coworker who was always talking about her new bike. I hadn't been on one in ten years, but it was always something I had loved as a kid, even though I crashed my brand new 10-speed on my birthday only an hour after taking the bow off it. It seemed like a good thing to try again, just to get a little exercise and cruise around the neighborhood. So I bit the bullet and bought a hybrid bike. It wasn’t fancy, but it was decent - the lowest end of the selection you get at a bike shop instead of a big box store. It felt like a huge purchase, but I knew it was a good investment in myself. And indeed, it was love at first ride.
A couple weeks later, I was out riding a few times a week, maybe 10-15 miles at a time, exploring an ever-expanding radius around my house. My coworker invited me to join her for an organized ride for the American Diabetes Association one weekend. She suggested we do the 30-mile route, which sounded insanely far to me. I wasn’t sure I could make it, and I was so full of anxiety about it that I hardly slept the night before the ride. Of course, once we got out there, it was an amazing ride, I felt great at the finish, and I was hooked. As I left, I discovered a flyer on my windshield for the Pan Ohio Hope Ride. It was a ride from Cleveland to Cincinnati to benefit the American Cancer Society. I felt an instant spark of desire to do it, but the event was only eight weeks away, so I almost dismissed the idea just as quickly. But then I turned the flyer over, and there, staring up at me, was a picture of a woman wearing a jersey that read "Biking 300 miles in memory of my mom." I knew I had to do it.
I had a friend try to convince me that it was too much -- that I didn't have enough time to train properly. Maybe I could do just one or two of the four days… But at some point, I decided that if I was going to do this in memory of Dad, I couldn't half-ass it. It was all or nothing. So I did pretty much nothing else for the next eight weeks but ride my bike every chance I got. I had no idea what I was doing, no real training plan, and no company. I just got on my bike and rode. And somewhere out on the roads and trails of central Ohio, I found myself. I often set off with no real plan and just explored wherever the road would take me. I discovered the beauty of farm country, of getting half lost, and of getting caught in the rain. I found adventure, freedom, independence, and joy. I loved tuning in to my surroundings -- the sounds, sights, smells, and sometimes even the taste of the wide-open countryside or the crosstown traffic.
My bike grounded me. I suddenly had a meaning and a purpose. I had a lot of solitary time to sort out my thoughts and feelings and work through the noise in my head. The wind in my face dried many a tear, but I finally had an outlet for grieving my dad and doing something positive in his honor. I still wasn’t sure I could do it, but as soon as I had a couple people donate to the American Cancer Society in support of my ride, there was no turning back. There's no way I would have ridden so much without that motivation. I needed a reason bigger than myself to get out there. I don't think it's much of an overstatement to say my bike saved me.
Of course, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes there are hills and headwinds and flat tires. I remember one day deciding to ride to Lancaster for an 80-mile round trip, by far the longest I had attempted. It was the hottest day of July. I had a vague route planned, but a road closure forced a detour, and I got a bit lost, back in the day before there was GPS on my silly little flip phone. I finally made it there, had a break and a bite to eat, and headed back in the heat of the afternoon sun. I got about halfway home before I was totally spent. And on some road somewhere, I was greeted with "Get a car, bitch" as someone threw a bottle out his car window at me. I remember stopping on the side of the road and just sobbing in a parking lot for a while. But I had no choice but to keep going. I had to get home, and somehow calling in a rescue from a friend was not an option in my mind.
Even after all of that, I had no confidence that I could ride all the way from Cleveland to Cincinnati. I didn't know anyone when I signed up for the ride, and this was way outside of my comfort zone. But I also had learned enough to know that as long as I kept moving, no matter how slowly, I'd get there eventually. And I did. Town to town, rest stop to rest stop. One mile at a time. To that next tree. Sometimes just one more crank of the pedals. Actually, if I'm being honest, sometimes walking, thanks to one giant hill in Holmes county. But always moving forward.
The feeling of crossing the finish line was indescribable.
All in all, it was a great lesson in trusting myself. In learning to push myself. In learning that I could accomplish more than I thought was possible. Add to that an incredible community of others who had been through similar experiences, and the ride was so amazing I've been back every year since, even though I originally thought it would be a one-time thing. Over the past nine years of the ride, it's been phenomenal to watch the community grow. It's become my own extended family, and the kickoff dinner on the eve of the ride has become one of my favorite nights of the year. It's a giant reunion party, where all the returning riders just pick up effortlessly where we left off the year before. It’s hard to believe that when I showed up my first year, I knew no one - my friends like to joke that I now know everyone, even as there are now nearly 500 riders. It's not true, of course, but I wish it were. I try to meet as many as possible, and there's nothing I love more than hearing everyone's stories and motivation for being there. There are many cancer survivors and many who have lost loved ones. And it's amazing to share our grief and celebration over the four days we get to spend together pedaling through cornfields and dairy farms. There are so many people who have encouraged and inspired me. It's a beautiful mix of an individual challenge and a support group like no other. We each have to pedal our own bikes, but we are undoubtedly all in it together.
I've ridden my bike less and less each year in preparation for Pan Ohio. The past couple years, I once again had serious doubts that I'd be able to make it, I had gotten so out of shape again. But through it all, my bike quietly sat there in the corner of the garage, calling out to me now and then, patiently waiting for me to jump back on, ready to take me wherever I wanted to go, regardless of how long I had abandoned or neglected it. And once I got back on, that childlike sense of freedom, wonder, and joy was always restored. Ready to pick me up and save me once again. And once again, I learned that if I just keep pushing the pedals, one mile at a time, I’ll eventually look back and realize how far I’ve come.
This year, I’ve made a commitment to bring my bike back to the center of my life, and I’ve learned to use it for practical purposes and commuting as well. For a while, I thought that if I didn’t have time for at least 30-40 miles, it wasn’t worthwhile to go out, but this year I’ve seen how frequent short rides can really add up, and I have more miles by mid-May this year than I had in total last year. I’ve met even more amazing people in the cycling community and mostly do longer distances in group rides now, enjoying camaraderie and shared adventure with other like-minded people who are crazy enough to think spending all day riding through the rain actually sounds fun.
Sometimes I think about not riding in Pan Ohio anymore, but when I think about how much it has meant to me, I know I can’t ever quit. The people I’ve met are some of the best I know, and I’ve formed lifelong friendships with people whose paths I otherwise would never have crossed. It motivates me to ride more, and time on my bike never fails to lift my spirits and energize me. And, unfortunately, there’s still cancer in this world, so we still have work to do to raise money to find cures and help current patients. Cancer seems to have affected nearly everyone in some way. Sadly, I cannot think of anyone I know who has not had a father, mother, grandparent, sister, brother, spouse, child or friend suffer through this terrible disease. But I’m hopeful that we can change that for future generations. And, as it turns out, we can change ourselves in the process, too.
Long story short, my bicycle saved me. And the Pan Ohio Hope Ride is one of the best weeks of my year.
Visit www.pohr.org for more information, to register, or to make a donation.