It began so simply last November over a cup of coffee and a flyer on the wall of a Starbucks in San Francisco with the slogan “You Belong Here” – ALC11 (AIDS Life Cycle). From San Francisco to Los Angeles; 545 miles over seven days, 2500 cyclists would make their way down the coast to Santa Cruz, sweeping inland through central California wine country and snaking back to the oceanfront at Moro Bay to join the Pacific Coast Highway into Los Angeles. Sounded awesome.
I signed up for the 11th running of ALC, set a goal to raise $5000 in donations for community based HIV/AIDS work and began training in earnest in January. My initial motivation was for the physical challenge followed by the adventure. Last on my list of priorities was the idea that I might experience and learn some things while being a small part of a moving commune of people with which I had so little in common. Little did I know I had the formula backwards. I am not gay and I have never known anyone with HIV. While the physical challenge and the adventure proved to be everything I hoped they would be, the real take-away was what I learned about myself and the gay community. I’ll cover more of that in Immersion Therapy: Part 2. Think Part 1 as analytical, Part 2 as philosophical (Basicman style)
First a few words about the sheer magnitude of ALC logistics. 500 roadies traveled with the group, to support every need of the riders. Caterers served three meals a day to all 3000 participants. Seven tractor trailers housing showers followed the group, hundreds of porta-potties appeared at each stop, moving vans carried personal gear to camp where they reconnected with their owners at the end of each day. Within a few hours a city of 1500 uniformly colored blue tents would spring up around bigger white tents housing medical personnel, dining facilities, chiropractic, sports medicine and cycle technicians, logistics coordinators, etc. No details were overlooked. This same evolution repeated itself for seven days, never a glitch.
From day one my biggest fear was the successive days of high mileage. I knew how my midlife body (ok, post midlife body) felt after completing a century (100 mile) ride and how long it usually took to recover. Surely stringing a week of 60 to 100+ mile rides with challenging climbs each day would take a toll. By day four, it did. Not just the riding and recovery but the daily routine.
Each day was the same; up at 0430 for breakfast, pack my gear and breakdown the tent to put on the gear truck, stop in at the sports med tent, check my bike out bike parking, deal with any mechanical issues and be on the road by 0630. Then put in the mileage to arrive at the next camp site to reclaim my gear and assemble the tent, shower, wash out my riding jersey and shorts and get them dried before sunset, hit the chow tent for dinner, and finally, crash ….. And do it all again the next day. I became a machine while my youthful neighbors shrugged the regimen off and carried on with life.
What I learned was that your body can do stuff you never thought possible if you feed it properly, give it a tiny bit of rest, and not allow your brain to win the war waged between fatigue and will. Wearing a heart rate monitor allowed me to track expended calories; typically 3600-4100 per ride with my heart rate averaging 120 bpm. Each day I tried to consume at least 5000 calories. ALC food was fantastic; fresh, balanced, hot, delicious and all you could eat if you cared to stand in line twice. Everything from tacos to pork loin to short ribs for dinner and a different version of eggs, bacon, bagels, and oatmeal each breakfast. If it wasn’t tied down, I ate it. During the day there were rest stops every 20 miles supplying fluids, energy bars, sweet and salty snacks. My body responded kindly.
The route was magnificent, period. Rocky NorCal Pacific coastline to sandy SoCal beaches, and in between endless acres of every type of lettuce, strawberries, garlic, parsley, cherry and peach orchards, and miles of manicured grape vineyards. Small towns along the route embraced the idea that 3000 people were going to pass through on a certain day whose participants would enthusiastically stop in for an ice cream cone, fried artichoke heart, cup of coffee, or a cinnamon bun if they simply opened their doors or put a few speakers with loud music outside.
Every day, two to three ascents became the real tests for me. My training regimen in Maine didn’t adequately prepare me for these climbs. Unlike the short steep climbs back home, ascents nicknamed Half Moon Waxer, Quadbuster, Evil Twins, and Vandy’s Nipple were marked with grades in excess of 7 degrees and went on for miles. The good thing is that every hill has two sides and where I languished on the upslope my bike embraced the downslope. Seeing 50+ mph was not uncommon. Insane? Of course, but so exhilarating. If I fell I figured it wouldn’t hurt for very long.
The finish in LA was privately climactic. The last leg from Ventura was a quick 65 miles. I wasn’t interested in the grand closing ceremonies, the crowds or the drama. All I wanted was for the challenge to be done and to reconnect with my life, my wife and daughter. Mission accomplished as I quietly completed ALC11 before any of the commotion began. Crossing the finish line as the venue was still being set up, I was physically spent. Little did I know how emotionally drained I was. I parked my bike and for the first time in a week, let go.
I had just spent 7 days in Immersion Therapy; observing, living among and learning about a side of life in which I’d had little frame of reference. Immersion Therapy; Part 2 will expose this side of the experience and the lasting effect it will likely have on my worldview.
My gratitude goes to the staff at ALC; my ride rep Tim Schneider in particular. Their attention to detail made this experience seamless. All I had to do was raise some money, show up and ride. I did all three and am richer for what they returned to me. Thank you.