Friday, November 19, 2010

"I told you that one, so I could tell you this one..." -- Bill Cosby

On a related note, I didn't want to interrupt my trilogy of blogs about the Austin Challenge, not for continuity, but because I wanted those posts to be light and inspiring and hopeful.

However, just as the blog comes in threes, so does bad news.

As I mentioned in that series, I learned of my loved one's father dying while we were in Austin. The shame of it was that he was on course for treatment, and we were just helping to establish a support network for him. LIVESTRONG was just becoming a part of that. But, cancer is cruel, and it took his father just as he was feeling confident about how to approach his father's illness.

When I got back from Austin, I tagged my friend, Ryan N. Weiss, in my photo album on Facebook, just as I did in Philadelphia and after the New York City Century Tour, so he could see that I was still riding for him and his fight against cancer. Ryan had been released from the hospital just in time for the Philadelphia Challenge. We'd hoped that he would be in attendance, but with the weather, and just having left the hospital, he wisely opted to stay warm and dry at home and not risk his immune system. We'd exchanged messages here and there, and he always commented on my photo albums or updates and we kept in touch that way for some time. Usually, within minutes of tagging him in my notes or albums, he'd post a "Like" and a comment.

But not with the photos from Austin. I got worried. I went to his profile on Facebook, as his cell phone was cut off and he wasn't logging onto IM anymore. I saw a note that if anyone wanted to see or speak to Ryan to contact his wife's cell. I messaged her and she said that Ryan fell ill once more and it was bad. The cancer was ravaging him again.

I'd been trying to set up a chance to speak to him over the phone, just so he could hear my voice and that I cared very much for him and wished him well and strength when I saw a wall post go up on his Facebook profile that read, "OMG RYAN ILL MISS YOU 4EVER ALWAYS IN MY HEART YOU WERE MY GREAT FRIEND I WILL CHERISH ALL OUR MEMORIES THERE WONT BE A DAY I DONT THINK ABOUT YOU R I P MY DEAR DEAR FRIEND"

I jumped to his profile, and R.I.P. postings were cropping up left and right. He passed away before I had a chance to say goodbye.

Not long after, someone whom I can't call a close friend, but certainly an inspiration, lost his fight to cancer - like Ryan, cancer of the brain. Michael Patrick's story had been passed onto me before I had the chance to meet him. He raced mountain bikes while going through treatment. He'd had a very long battle with cancer (unlike Ryan, whose battle was absurdly brief), but rode whenever he could. Thanks to my friend, Sean, I had the chance to meet Michael this past Summer and ride with him. He was such a nice guy.

Some friends and family wonder if LIVESTRONG is good for me because it seems like since I've gotten involved, I only befriend, and lose, people who are fighting cancer. What I try and explain is that, of all the people lost this year that I knew, all of them were friends and colleagues with nothing else in common except they had cancer. Most of them weren't involved with LIVESTRONG. Not until, when their fights were made public, I approached them to see if there was anything I could do. Some didn't respond to the offer, others embraced it.

But that's what's so insidious about cancer. You don't have to be involved with the fight or the cause to be touched or even surrounded by it. Had it not been for LIVESTRONG, I still would have lost these amazing friends, colleagues and inspirations.

LIVESTRONG at least has provided me, and some of them, an outlet for the sense of helplessness and an opportunity to find some hope.

Austin LIVESTRONG Challenge Part 3: The Challenge

After a couple of fun rides with the AMAZING crew at Mellow Johnny's, and some embarrassing falls while trying to clip out of my Speedplays, more volunteer time and some other fun events, it was time for the Challenge itself.

The night before was the Appreciation Awards dinner. While Zach and I did our best to raise the qualifying amount for the Ride for the Roses, we earned enough money to attend this very special event with the top fundraisers in Austin. And what an honor!

The Amazing Liz Kreutz
Not only did we get a chance to sit with a group of Cyclists Combating Cancer (with whom Zach and I agreed we'd ride in 2011), we were 2 tables away from Patrick Dempsey, Levi Leipheimer, Ben King & Chris Carmichael (who told Zach he can call him "Carmichael" - apparently, he and Ben King are both Zach's BFF's). I finally got to meet the amazing Liz Kreutz and John "College" Korioth - the first two supporters and participants in my "With The Band" project/fundraiser. We also got to be witness to one of the most inspiring round tables I've attended - Patrick Dempsey, Doug Ulman and Lance Armstrong moderated by John Korioth. All four of these men are not only eloquent, and, let's face it, handsome, but the group dynamic, enthusiasm and passion was contagious.

Patrick even went off into a role-play of what it would be like to be coping with a cancer diagnosis and having to call a resource for guidance and help. It was cut-short for time, but I know everyone in that room would have been very happy if we'd had the time to allow it to continue. Equally inspiring was to hear about the top fundraisers & teams of the year - Team Fatty, Cyclists Combating Cancer and Jeff Mulder.

Me, my ample bosom and Ben King.
(I had a wardrobe malfunction on the way to the dinner.
Didn't realize I was doing my Anna Nicole Smith impersonation.
As much as I wanted to party after, I knew Zach and I had a very early morning, as we were staying about 30 minutes north of Austin, which meant we were about an hour away from the Challenge LIVESTRONG Village, and, let's face it - I'm a blonde, and, undercaffeinated, driving around an unfamiliar state at an obscene hour of the morning - I was vulnerable to getting lost. So, right after the dinner, save a couple of introductions to notables (including Zach complaining that he ALMOST got to meet Lance, but this guy, Patrick Dempsey, got in the way), we went straight back to my friend's house to prep and go to sleep. We laid out our kits, all of our gear, pinned bibs to jerseys, got our morning fuel of FRS and Honey Stinger set and went to sleep. (And, yes, I set my Blackberry's alarm to go off every 15 minutes from 4:00 am until 5:00 am.)

Levi is on the far left, you can't see Chris or Ben, but that's Patrick Dempsey standing in the black blazer and red t-shirt with white writing.
The morning of the 24th, I got up, took a shower, woke Zach up, and we kitted up, loaded the car up, and hit the road. Thankfully, as was the case in Philadelphia, as we got closer to the venue, more and more cars with very expensive road bikes appeared and we formed a modest caravan to Dripping Springs. Despite a wrong turn (someone in the caravan made an "oops!") we made it to the parking area. Of course, there, I discovered Zach was not functional and kept locking important items like helmets, shoes, water bottles, etc in the car every time I asked him to take out what was needed so we could get a move on. Ultimately, we rode down the road to the LIVESTRONG Village. FYI, there is a method to my madness and compulsion to arrive as early as possible. Aside from the fact that, as a project manager, I always want to underpromise and overdeliver and avoid being late, I heard through the grapevine that Patrick Dempsey was going to be there at 5:30 to get his bike tuned and tweaked by Mellow Johnny's folks and I wanted to catch a glimpse of McDreamy in his chamois. (Ladies, I may be a mother of 2 and a responsible member of society, but I am a breathing female.) I also wanted to swap my jersey for a better fitting one, so I knew I'd have to deal with that. Lastly, I wanted to make sure that we had a good place in the chute so we could start as early as possible and, yes, catch another glimpse of McDreamy and his friends, McLance-a-Lot, McCollege and McLevi in their chamois. (You know you would, too... )

The Movember Crew
Folks, I'm not a morning person. Especially without coffee. And when my nerves kick in? Fuggedaboutit. And Zach was getting on my nerves. So, to spare his young life, I sent him ahead to save a space for us in the chute while I checked bags, tried to get some coffee, a nosh and get myself into the zone. There, I finally got to meet my good friend, Erik Pearson, and I also got to run into the Movember crew! I schmoozed a little, hugged a bit, and then hustled to see where Zach ended up in the chute. I get to the back of the 100 mile chute. No Zach. I continue forward. And forward. And forward. And then I hear, "Mom! Up here! Ahead of you! MOM!"

There's my boy, all the way up front, only 3 bikes back from the closed off Ride for the Roses/VIP section. He done good.

First, we wished Levi Leipheimer a happy birthday. Then, and I'm going to get the order mixed up, but... Patrick Dempsey took the stage and was named honorary Team RadioShack Team Captain, Lee Applbaum of RadioShack came up and then Lance was presented with a million dollar check from RadioShack. I will say that it was a TREMENDOUS relief NOT to hear Lance warn us that the course was not treacherous, the hills weren't brutal and that he thought it was the most challenging of the Challenge series, unlike Philadelphia.
Lee and Lance's tush... I mean and Lance...

Patrick Dempsey, Lee Applbaum, Lance
After the introductions, we got ready to take off....
Zach on the left, riding for my grandmother, Margarete Wasser, and his best friend's father, Mark Levy. I'm on the right, riding for my grandmother and my friend's father who died while we were in Austin, Yehudah Shilon. Of course, that is in addition to the dozens of other fighters that we dedicated our ride to. But, we only had a set amount of surface area on our backs, so we carried them in our hearts and posted their bibs on the tribute wall.
While I advised Zach that he should pace himself and not kill himself in the first few miles (the longest ride he'd taken prior was a 30-mile ride), he took off ahead and I shrugged it off. Let's face it, it was close to a closed course, he was well-marked and accompanied by 3,000 other LIVESTRONG riders. I think he'd be ok. The weather was a bit chilly and dreary. There were reports of high chances for rain.

I chose not to stop for long at the first rest area, except to see if Zach turned up. No Zach, I kept going and discovered my first cattle guard. It's hard to describe. Below is a picture. Let's see if this helps...

Think of a cattle guard as a set of metal pipes recessed so they are more or less flush with the road, spaced an inch or two from one another, that lie across the road side by side for anywhere between 3-feet and 10-feet. I'd heard about them, and my friend, Erik, said to just approach them like I would rocks on a mountain bike trail. So, when I saw the warning signs, I just kept telling myself to just ride over them just like I was on the trail. I'll roll over it. Except for one itty-bitty detail...

I WASN'T ON A MOUNTAIN BIKE, I WAS ON A CARBON-FIBER ROAD BIKE WITH NO SUSPENSION! Did I panic? No. Did I fall or slip? No. Did I permanently stamp the Bontrager logo into my bum with repeated, force while my rear end crashed over and over into my hard saddle? You bet your bippy, I did. OW!!!!!!!!!!!

Soon after, people were slowing down and scrambling again. People were giving all kinds of weird arm signals that only we cyclists use to indicate slowing and coming to a full stop. Of course, I hadn't planned on stopping, and, I slipped into my SPD habits, tried to clip out of my Speedplays all wrong, and I fell over on my side just like a longhorn being tipped by a drunken frat boy. Another odd Texas "thing"... here, in the Northeast, when there is constant water run-off or a small brook, we build a bridge OVER the water, so the road doesn't get wet. To ensure this, we even build walls.

In Texas, they don't do that. Instead, they'll raise the road a couple of inches, not put up a wall, and then the water washes over the road. After some time, algae grows on the surface, making an ice-like patch. I watched as one gentleman decided to run across the slippery road on the right with his Keo Look cleats on, skid and knock down 10 other cyclists like a bowling ball as he slid all the way to the left and off the road. I made it across though, and of course, was met by a nasty hill. I knew my back was still feeling the cattle guard, so I opted to play it safe and walk this hill.

Onward I went once I got to the top, and I made it to the first rest area, where, not only was I reunited with Zach (who got to see Lance, Patrick and all the other notables on their way back in, lucky devil), but I got to meet up with my friend, Becky, and her boyfriend (with whom we had dinner Friday night with my amazing friends Carlos, Lindsay, Eric and Tal.) Turns out I wasn't going to see my friend, Tal on the course, as he ended up partying at Six Lounge with Lance, College, Patrick and everyone else and slept in. Mind you, great excuse to oversleep, but the man trained for this all year - we would Tweet each other about it. Ah, well...

Back into the saddle and I kept riding. I ended up riding about 10 miles with a young lady who was very witty and a gentleman who was riding with one leg. His story was incredible, and we ended up chatting our way up and down some stretches that would have been a challenge had I paid attention and thought about where I was riding. But I wasn't. We hit the split between his course and the 90-mile, parted ways. I rode a little further, got some speed, and turned a corner to nearly crash into a pair of longhorns that chose to cross the road and ignore the cattle guards (which, by now, I'd mastered). After that close call, I went to the next rest area, where I met up with Zach. This time, Zach and I realized we were probably among the last of the 90-mile riders attempting to finish, so we chose to ride together as much as we could.

Unfortunately for us, the sun started to come out. Ordinarily, this wouldn't have been a problem, however, we didn't hydrate enough for riding in full-sun exposure and heat. There were some stretches where we were both pushing each other. At one point, we made a left turn and were on a straight-away that literally went on for miles, I told him we should just enjoy it and book it. I was hitting between 25 and 30 mph. After a couple of miles, I looked back. Zach wasn't there. Not even a speck in the horizon. I had completely dropped him. But in this heat, I had to keep going, so I did. I pushed my back a little too far on one incline, and I had to stop and stretch. I had no idea where the next rest area was, but I looked ahead and started to see more and more hills coming.

I assessed the situation, stretched the back, and stared back at some cattle that had nothing better to do than to watch these people zipping past their ranch. Soon enough, I saw Zach struggling up the slope. He was looking exhausted. Based on what I could tell, we were at least 40 miles in. But the sun was out, and it was hot. And I was no longer sweating, despite finishing 2 full bottles of water/Gatorade since the last rest stop. I went to wipe my brow, and my glove literally had a dusting of sandy crystals on it. Zach protested, but I could tell he was just as dehydrated. A SAG wagon came by and asked if we were ok.
I inquired as to whether or not the hills continued, and if we were close to a rest area. We weren't far from the next rest stop, however, there were some serious hills up ahead. I knew I'd likely have to walk some of those hills, and neither of us had enough water. The driver kindly offered to drive us to the next rest area to save us from the inclines, allow us to cool down (I guess he saw how overheated we were) and get us back on course. Sure enough, we get to the next rest stop, and I not only refilled my water bottles, but I ran into my friend, Eric McWhirter, whom I kept running into along the way. We consoled one another that we'd, in fact, missed the time cut for the 90-mile ride and then Zach and I took off.

Rob on the left, Spencer on the right
We had both hoped to meet 2 younger riders, Liam Flanagan and Spencer Sartin, with whom Zach had formed Twitter friendships. Liam is somewhat famous for being filmed riding alongside Lance Armstrong during a training ride on the 2009 Tour de France. Spencer is a cancer fighter, and Zach's age, and I'd hoped the 3 boys would have had the chance to ride together. I'd seen a father/son duo riding not far from us, but the boy looked too big to be Spencer, so we kept passing one another without saying anything. Ultimately, though Zach was struggling, I knew in order for me to finish, I had to fight my own riding demons, get into my zone and keep my momentum. I told Zach if we split up, not to worry - we'd meet up at the last rest area and finish the ride together.

We did split up, and I got to the final rest area, the Mellow Johnny's stop, alone. I asked some of the MJ staff members who knew who Zach was if he'd come by yet. He hadn't. I started to get concerned, when I saw Zach roll up with the father and son pair. Sure enough, it WAS Rob & Spencer and Zach got the chance to ride with Spencer! (Liam, we all learned, was stuck in Europe due to protests and airport closures and missed the Challenge altogether.) We ended up riding as a group together, chit chatting along the way. That is, until Rob, Spencer and I turned and realized Zach wasn't with us anymore. And we were only a mile or so from the finish.

That's not really a smile. That's me gnarling my teeth.
At this point, I was tired, I wanted to take my shoes off and get my beer. (Which, really, was the only motivation I had for the ride - the free beer. ;) ) Spencer and his dad went ahead. I made it all the way to the start of the Yellow Mile - the final stretch leading to the finish line. It was about 3:00 pm. My co-worker had come out to cheer us on at the end - and we were at least an hour later than I'd expected. He and I stood there, chatting. (Well, I was mostly complaining about how I was going to kill Zach when he showed up for making me wait and not get my beer and food.) It wasn't until 3:45 pm that Zach turned up. To this day, I still don't fully understand how it took 45 minutes for him to ride 1 mile of flat, straight road.

12-year olds, go figure.

Finally, Zach shows up and we ride side by side into the Yellow Mile. Tal and Jill cheer, Chris cheers, and I hear the announcer on the loudspeaker announce, "Here comes the Mendes Family! This mother/son duo raised $4,000 for the LIVESTRONG Challenge and almost $7,000 for LIVESTRONG this year! Let's give them a round of applause!" How cool is that?!??!

We dismounted, got as much off as possible, and stretched our legs before heading to the lunch tent. And for me to get my beer. Zach went to clean up, and I was able to reunite with some of my friends. Eric and Becky were there. I'd missed many of my other friends, but thank goodness, I know where they'll be next October. Riding the Challenge with us again.

Rather than give a whole big sign-off to this blog, I'm going to end things on a light note and say that I look forward to kicking cancer's ass across Texas Hill Country again next year, with my son and maybe my daughter in tow.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Austin LIVESTRONG Challenge Part 2: Getting Settled

I can honestly say that this was the first vacation/trip that I took with pre-determined events that worked out as planned – I left enough flexibility and hours in between events that we could fill in with stuff on the fly.

It should be noted that Four Square, Twitter and Facebook all play very important roles in this trip. Either that’s because it’s what all the cool kids/hipster wannabes do or because most of us involved with LIVESTRONG, and in Austin for the Challenge, are all geeks. Either way, thank goodness for Foursquare. Not only was I able to figure out where friends were so I could meet up with them, but it’s acted as a brilliant diary for this vacation.

We’d signed up for the 10 am tour of the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s headquarters, but I figured we’d arrive early, park, and go for a ride before the tour started. It took us a little longer than expected to get there (Zach turned out, by the end of the trip, to be an excellent navigator, but the first day of reading my GPS on my Crackberry took some practice). We arrived almost an hour early, so we popped our heads in and asked where we could grab breakfast (it was too late to go to Juan Pelota again). The recommendation was Cisco’s Restaurant & Bakery up the street from the LAF, so we hopped on our bikes, went for a quick ride into downtown Austin, turned around, and had a quick bite. Little did I know I’d be sinking my teeth into the most delightful, soft & fluffy tortillas I’ve ever had. One thing has to be said for Texas – you simply cannot get tortillas like these in New York. The melting pot has clearly destroyed any ability to make tortillas this good. We scarfed down our eggs, tortilla and biscuits (served with honey – yum!), saddled up and arrived just in time to meet up with my, until now, online LIVESTRONG Leader friend from Germany, Henrike, throw on something civil and take the tour.

Since Zach was missing a few days of school, and his class will be doing a project on sustainable living, Amber Wadey kindly indulged us in talking about the green features of the building. For example, much of the cement used in the garden area and in the driveway was re purposed from the paper mill that formerly occupied the space. The wood used to build the “conference cubes,” which Zach and I agreed resembled camp bunks, were re purposed from the building, as well. Fluorescent lighting was used, but wasn’t abundant, as the sky lights provide a tremendous amount of lighting. While the walls are decked with beautiful artwork, not a cent of the Foundation’s money was spent on the gallery-caliber d├ęcor – they are pieces from Lance Armstrong’s personal collection.

Zach was very excited to see Chris Brewer working on bikes in front of the gym. Chris, in addition to his very important job at the Foundation, apparently doubles as mechanic for every employee in the LAF, at least so it seemed. The bike he was working on when we stumbled upon him was his bike – formerly George Hincapie’s Discovery Channel bike.

Zach then nearly collapsed as an audible gasp escaped his star-struck face when he saw 7 of Lance’s yellow jerseys, signed, from the Tour de France victories. After the tour, we packed up, took Henrike in tow, and headed off to the Austin Convention Center to volunteer.

We signed up to stuff goodie bags for all the riders and runners. Now, conceptually, I knew how many people were participating. Philly had over 3,000 participants. But when the reality hit that, what looked like only 10 or so people were going to have to stuff over 5,000 goodie bags, I nearly died in my new, blue Team LIVESTRONG volunteer tee. Then, the cavalry, in the guise of Jack C Hays High School Leo Club entered the building. Like a scene out of an episode of Extreme Makeover Home Edition, a flood of cheering, happy volunteers aged 13-19 came barreling into the hall, throwing on their blue t-shirts, and all I could think was, “WE ARE SAVED!” Not only that, their teacher/mentor, Ms. Espinoza took over and set up a 4-part assembly line that worked brilliantly. We were done in only a couple of hours, with enough time to chat with the students, laugh, and enjoy ourselves.

Almost, that is. About half-way through, my phone rang. I immediately recognized the number as my close and dear friend. I saw he’d called me earlier during the tour at LAF Headquarters, but I didn’t want to take the call. He didn’t sound like himself. His father, who lived in Israel, had been going through diagnosis for what was suspected to be pancreatic cancer. He got the call from his sister that his father had passed away, therefore he’d be unable to pick up Zach and me at the airport on Monday. He was flying to Israel within a few hours. Here I am, in the middle of volunteering for LIVESTRONG, amidst cancer fighters and odds beaters, and his father dies before he has the chance to fly out to see him alive one last time (which was planned the following week). Talk about putting my mission in Austin in perspective. I cried with him for a bit, consoled him, assured him I’d pick him up from the airport upon his return and I knew then and there I’d have his father’s name on my back on Sunday.

After we were done at the Convention Center, we had a late lunch, headed off to Mellow Johnny’s, well, because it had become our home-away-from-home to have some more coffee and ogle at their goods. That night, we were taking our hosts to Phara’s Mediterranean Cuisine – a middle eastern restaurant with live belly dancing. I’ll let the video speak for itself… (the fun starts at around minute 2)

Next morning was to be the first of our official training rides – we were getting acclimated to the weather, a taste of the terrain and landscape and I had to get used to my Speedplay pedals, which seemed very different from the SPDs I’d grown accustomed to…