After a day of riding it is customary at a Hazon event for everyone to stand in a circle and play the game, “Jump Into the Circle if You....” It goes something like this: “Jump into the circle if you rode further today than you have ever ridden before.” That usually gets a lot of people in the middle to a chorus of cheers. “Jump into the circle if you got lost.” There’s usually two or three who get to celebrate their earlier fear and humiliation. Or “Jump into the circle if you were deeply moved by nature today.” You’d have to be insensate not to jump into the circle on that one, or in my case simply unable to move.
Friday was a glorious day of riding in many respects. The weather was very cooperative. Chilly as expected at the start. Toastier, but not unbearable later on. Often a hint of a cool breeze. The winds never too gusty. The scenery majestic—broad sweeping valleys dotted with cattle or sheep. Bucolic byways. Gray worn barns. An occasional vulture of some sort circling above the road kill, and giving me pause to think any time my cycling came to a standstill. Glorious as the day was, especially in retrospect, it didn’t start well for me. I spent much of the day preoccupied by my own physical condition with a very low expectation regarding the outcome.
Admittedly I have trained with greater diligence for previous rides. Last year I was seeing a personal trainer—not just for the sake of the ride, mind you—who had me incessantly work on my “core,” had me doing exhausting cycle sprints up hills at different paces (commonly referred to as interval training). I may have been about as heavy last year as I am now, but I was toned up a lot more for sure. I only mention that because I suspect the core strength exercises in particular, or rather the lack of them this year, may have contributed to my waking on ride day with an unforgiving lower back pain. What triggered it I can’t say for sure. Perhaps unloading much of the baggage from the bus that took us up to Santa Rosa. Though I was in complete denial, there just may have been a little twinge in my back earlier in the week.
I had already registered my doubts about achieving my usual distance on day one, ostensibly based on the medically supervised weight management program I am engaged in. That is, since the Kaiser doc said I should not increase my food replacements for the ride (he said I had plenty in reserve) nor should I drink or eat the usual electrolyte supplements (he said to just stay hydrated) I had my doubts as to whether I would be capable of performing the 66-mile ride versus the 33-mile ride alternative. The other issue that contributed to my doubts was the fact that I had not stretched out any of my training rides this year—thirty-two miles was the longest I had gone.
After consulting the medical staff on the ride we settled on my starting out on the longer ride and feeling free to exercise my option of getting picked up whenever and wherever I felt I had reached my limit. (Those doing the 33-mile option were simply bussed to the midway point of the ride and pedaled to our destination from there.) This seemed reasonable, especially after I awoke in the grips of the back spasm.
The throng of brightly clad cyclists gathered at the campground gate. We listened to the Traveler’s Prayer recited in English and Hebrew. As has been the case on each of my four Hazon rides I had the honor of sounding the shofar, akin to the call to colors at Churchill Downs, and off we went down the sinuous road in the brightness of the Spring morning.
My back may have actually felt better while on the cycle than at other times. As the ride progressed that seemed not to be the limiting factor. Of greater concern were the fears that had generated my original question to the doc—just how is one supposed to attempt 6+ hours of cycling, burning approximately 5000 calories, without altering a 960-calorie per day diet? The response I had received at Kaiser seemed not to be based on any true understanding of the physiology of a long distance cyclist. Out here on the road it was becoming evident that this advise was ill-conceived.
The earliest evidence was tightening of my right hamstring. Nonetheless, at the first rest stop (mile 12) I eschewed the usual snacks and drinks in favor of a food replacement bar. Given how much time had elapsed from my breakfast shake to the rest stop, I was actually due for a bar anyway. What I had not anticipated was how soon thereafter I would feel the need to at least nibble another bar that I theoretically would not eat for another three hours. Now even making it to the midpoint seemed to be a distant goal. Going further than that seemed way out of reach.
By the time I got to our lunch stop at mile 33, however, any remaining notions of adhering to the weight loss program had evaporated in the afternoon sun. I didn’t grab the sandwiches, but I did make a beeline for the bananas—their potassium is supposed to be the thing for cramping. And I munched on some salty snacks. And I accepted some electrolyte chewable supplements from the ride doctor, as well as his advice to throw down some Oreos. I finally recognized that the choice was clearly one between maintaining the restricted food regimen or continuing the ride—the two being mutually exclusive. I chose to ride.
By now my back was worse. The cramps were being held somewhat in abeyance. Visions of going the distance were floating in my head, but so were rationalizations about just going maybe another ten miles to gain some minimal sense of accomplishment.
Permeating my little drama, and of far greater significance was the awareness of my having dedicated the ride to the strength and healing of my friend David Eisenberg. I was inspired to do this partly because David and I and other riders had done similar dedications on our Israel Ride in 2008. I was also inspired by the blog that David has been writing, sharing the challenges of his ongoing cancer treatment. I also simply wanted to create a vehicle for myself and others on the ride to send love and energy to David, a real champion of Hazon.
I had pinned to my chest, and tied to the back of my bike a photo of David from the 2011 California Ride with the words of healing “Refuah shleimah David Eisenberg!” When the going got tough, I thought of David. With each grind of the pedals I would recite his name or words like “healing,” “courage,” “strength,” “peace.” It didn’t take long for me to chastise myself for my petty preoccupation with lower back pain and leg cramps. Some of the rolling hills made me think of the ups and down David has described during the course of his treatments. I felt certain, however, that David would trade, in a heartbeat, his current situation for a bike ride on the steepest roads. Mile after mile I had to challenge myself to persevere, but only a fraction of what it must take a person facing the discomfort and anxiety of a serious disease.
I think I put it succinctly (yeah, yeah, unlike this posting) when we all stood in the circle at the day’s end. After riders and crew jumped in or not for various reasons we then paired off to talk about things we had discovered during the day. When we reconvened I shared with the group that I had put together a pretty convincing set of excuses for why I wasn’t likely to do the 66-mile journey, but that having dedicated the ride to David meant all the difference in my success. What I had not anticipated was that more than doing something for David, his accompaniment on the ride did something for me.
The rest of the weekend followed in similar fashion. There were times, such as dancing around the campfire after Havdallah, when my back pain prevented me from participating. As the condition seemed to grow worse—and by Sunday morning it was quite painful—I came very close to scrubbing the second day of riding. I posited that persisting would have one meaning, but that facing the limitations imposed by ill health was another reality worth paying attention to as well. As a partial concession to the pain, I decided to take the shorter of the second riding day’s two routes. Just before the ride, however, one friend insisted that the damage I could do by riding at all was too risky versus the downside of missing one ride. She had me ninety-nine per cent convinced to sit the ride out, but the one per cent that was itching to get back on the bike asked the doctor for another opinion, which was far less alarming. I decided to try riding, knowing I could always bail at any time.
I also still had David riding along with me. When we got to the Sausalito climb, just before the Golden Gate Bridge I actually started talking to him. I said, “Hey, buddy, how about putting in some effort here and helping me!” He just grinned and laughed at me! I had to laugh, myself, at this play unfolding in my imagination—all the way up the hill.
Crossing the bridge is still a relatively rare occurrence for me and still filled with delight. Mothers Day. Sunday. The bike lane closed. It was a challenge making it across with lots of tourists on foot as well as on rented bikes, plus serious cyclists going in both directions almost head on. I loved the intensity of the crossing and the distant beauty of the San Francisco skyline muted by the midday mist. Halfway across, I spontaneously found myself singing Rabbi David Zeller’s chant, I Am Alive. I had a full appreciation of the richness of the moment and its source.
When all the riders finally gathered at the Jewish Community High School for a closing circle, in addition to one more game of “Jump Into the Circle if You....” we also sang the Shehecheyanu, our prayer signifying our appreciation of the miracle of this present moment, grateful that other than a few bumps and bruises we had all made it through the ride: We bless God who gave us Life, sustained us and brought us to this very moment.
Amen to that.