Friday, October 22, 2010
Miles 23 -in memory of Jesse in Death Valley
On 2/2/2010 I sat at the dinner table with my family. I had recently been talked into doing the JDRF Ride to Cure Diabetes by my friend, Tim Kritter. He said it was time to return from my self-imposed exile. We decided on the Lake Tahoe ride because we hadn't been there - after all, I had already been to Death Valley 4 times. Charles was teasing me about going to Tahoe - he and Jesse relentlessly teased me about my love for the ride party. Of course I got totally upset and then Jesse said, "Mom. Seriously, you need to chill. We know what you do for me with diabetes." We hung out and had a great night watching Kindergarten Cop together. In the morning he told me he wasn't feeling great. No big deal - a bad 'd' day. While I got ready for work I created my fundraising page and emailed it to all of my friends and family for donations. I said to them that it was time for me to get back in the saddle because diabetes doesn't rest for Jesse, why should I?
He died that day.
I can't explain the strong pull I had to return to the Valley. I called my friends and said, "forget Tahoe, we need to go back." On the day of his funeral, we all made the switch to return. And a new journey began.
The 8 months it took to get from that moment to the hot sand and stark beauty of the desert were more brutal than you can ever imagine. Each day was a challenge - not training, no, just being alive and missing him. I was surrounded by friends and watched them one by one sign up to join me in Death Valley.
As we trained we ordered special jerseys - Godspeed Jesse jerseys. They arrived in time for us all to bring with us to Furnace Creek. Upon arriving at the ranch I see friends not just from my chapter but Anne Findlay from San Fran, Sue Morgan "Carmel Sue" of Utah, Mike Crowley of Milwaukee, Jerry Jorgensen of Little Rock, not to forget Triabetes athlete Jerry Nairn whom I never met yet was there to ride for my little man and the best faces in the world to finally see - Bob and Jen Nicholson. You see, I met Jen and Bob shortly after 3/25 - which sadly is the day their 14 year old son, Trent, died from diabetes. A bond was made during those horrible weeks and seeing them after months of phone calls and emails it was like we had known each other for years. And watching my friends embrace them as their own was overwhelming.
Tim St. Clair surprised me the Friday evening before the ride by dedicating a mile of silence in Jesse's honor and the announcement that the mile would continue for years to come to recognize all that are lost to this disease. It was also a strange honor to receive the top recruiter jersey and set a new record for most recruits. Joy mixed with a lot of pain.
Before the sun rose we made our way to breakfast me dragging Charles along for his first experience. I was worried how he would react - would he see the beauty of this experience? Would he feel the way I did in 2004, the almost spiritual journey out to Jubilee Pass? We donned our Jesse jerseys and made it to the starting line. Quickly it was decided by my team that we would stop at mile 23 as a team - no matter what - all together to honor Jesse.
As we sped down to Badwater we laughed and smiled and enjoyed the stark beauty and the love for one another. It was a literal Jesse train, his smiling face everywhere. It was beautiful. We all got off our bikes - someone made a cross with rocks - to this day I don't know who. We gathered for a photo as I watched Sandy Thompson cry and I said, "No. Not now. Not today. Today we push forward and we are strong." The heaviness was quickly broken by Jerry Jorgensen, a comical man with diabetes when he crouched down to test his blood sugar and screamed, "Oh my God! I'm bleeding! I'm bleeding!" (he was 68 by the way, way to check Jerry!).
As the photos are snapped we rode off together in a sea of Jesse's. I caught up to Bob Nicholson in our silence. A nod, a painful smile and a knuckle-bump for Trent and Jesse.
We break out to mile 24 with the sun breaking along the next alluvial fan and we change our gears to enjoy this brutally hot yet beautiful day that even forced the one lone coyote into the shade of one roadside sign.
For those of you who have been to Death Valley you know the ascent to Jubilee Pass is difficult, relentless, hot and well - UPHILL for six miles. 113 degrees on the bike computers this particular year, to be exact. You bring that gear down and you crank. I am no stranger to it as I had climbed 4 times prior. But this particular year my body said "no." Halfway up I find myself walking. And angry with myself. I'm hot. I'm pissed off. My two coaches Joe Brady and Dan Rotert are circling me like caring buzzards. My mind is racing as they point out cloud formations to distract my pain and overexertion. I laugh out loud and say to Joe, "Are you KIDDING me? You are pointing out clouds? Dude! I'm the one who is usually doing this to others on this climb, you can't fool me!" More pain and frustration. With one mile to go up I simply give up. I can't make it. I'm holding tightly a vial of two used test strips. I had brought them from home. I hand them to Joe and say, "take them. I can't do it. You know what you need to do." But something took over. I had a goal, I was going to get there.
This isn't a story of some courageous last climb. Nope. Instead its a story of finding a sag wagon to put my sorry ass in. But the beauty of that moment is I'm so relieved that I will make it to Jubilee that I start helping others who are sagging to the top, I ask them where they are from, I help load up their bikes, I get them water from the sag wagon to relieve us from drinking the hot water in our bottles. I'm back! The "me" is back!
At the top of Jubilee I see friends Mollie Shambeau and Sean Busby overheated and waiting. There's Amy Eager and Bob Gorsuch. And here comes Sandy Thompson and Craig Midtlein climbing. Jeremy Scherbert, Chris Rotert...the gang is here. We get up to the sign and with tears and hugs Sean and I nod and place a used test strip down the rusty metal poles of the Jubilee Pass sign knowing a true part of Jesse will remain there forever.
You might also think this story should end with me getting a second wind and getting my butt back to the ranch. Again, no. But it was just as glorious. As I coast back down to Ashford Mills I pick up Sandy Thompson and say "I'm done, sag please." I get in the car of Cheryl Sargeant, volunteer cheer. I look in the mirror and see what everyone was concerned about - white blisters have formed all over my face - I have sun poisoning. I made a good choice. We drive awhile and pick up a tired Sean Busby. I can tell you, however, that sagging in with Cheryl, Sandy and Sean was amazing and leaning out the car to cheer my amazing teammates through was worth every second. It was not failure.
The reat of the story is the same for everyone - beauty of crossing the finish, hugging those who are out there for the first time and knowing they will be back. I think most of Charles who came into this unsure of whether or not he enjoyed cycling who didn't really "get it" 100%...but after his journey and we were home he said, "I want to do this next year and be trained and hammer this thing and be in by 2 pm." Yeah baby....welcome to the itch.
I am a proud JDRF Ride to Cure Diabetes Rider and I look forward to my next journey with the new group of new friends and old friends. I think you should join me.
Godspeed Jesse, you were in our hearts the whole ride.