NO MAN'S LAND
I leave the aid station and begin a rapid descent. The problem is that the road has just been freshly cindered…on a descent. I’m not sure who had that brilliant idea, but it seems to me they could have postponed it ONE weekend. Seriously. How hard is that? I put the brakes on and feel some slippage in the back tire. I ease it up and the bike straightens. I continue this dance with the cinders, my bike, and the downside of a hill. I reach the bottom and mercifully turn off onto a normal road.
I come up on a woman who is struggling mightily up the next set of rolling hills. I ask, “Are you okay?” She nods she is, concentrating on her effort. I am about to just pass on, when something stops me. From that moment to this, I honestly don’t know what it was. It is like the Spirit of God whispered something, deep within my heart, to slow down.
“Do you mind if I ride with you?” I find myself asking.
“Not at all.” She seems glad for a little company—like I said, it was a little lonely.
I learn her name is Diane, and she drove out to the event from Chicago. She is working on her PhD in speech issues, and we talk about Little Fish, who stutters. Then, she explains that she has finished her chemotherapy, and that she has planned her first round of radiation to start AFTER this ride. In essence, she has planned her treatments to make riding the LiveSTRONG 100 her window. I thought I was tough; she humbles me and inspires me at the same time. We ride together for some time.
“I don’t want to slow you down,” she says.
“You’re not.” It was the first time I wasn’t thinking about the time.
She explains that she is going to stop and take a break with two other riders who have stopped, and are rubbing out cramps. I wish her all the best, give her a (BIG) BUTN and pedal on.
“Good luck!” she calls after me, and I shout the same back to her.
The aid stations are an interesting mix. The one at the top of the 60 mile hill was a blast. There was a party atmosphere, people were blasting music and it was more than just the pretzels, oranges and Gatorade. The next one I pull into is at a Fire Station, and it is the lamest aid station. In the world. EVAR. They have Gatorade. Period. The volunteers don’t even talk to the three or four riders who are there. If I sound bitter, it’s not intentional, it’s just that this one was in sharp contrast to the others I had been to up this point.
It makes me think of Donald Carnes. Donald’s family sponsored me in the ride, in his name. Donnie was a teenager from my church who was taken in a tragic car crash this year. He was one of the funniest teenage pranksters, always looking for a good time. But Donnie also had a heart for service, which is how he came to be a volunteer firefighter, and I can’t help but think if he were here at the Fire Station, people would be having the time of their lives. It makes me smile to think of him, and a little sad that so many will never know his spirit.
I leave TLASITWE (The Lamest Aid Station In The World EVAR) and pedal on. I am now at mile 70 and trying to make up time, but the cramps have begun again. They start out manageable, but keep getting worse. I am shotgunning the Gatorade to try to stay ahead of them, but I am barely keeping up with the tightening, at best. At one point, they are so bad I tear up. It hurts so bad. I think about Diane and it hurts a little less, but only a little. I do not have the fuel I need to make it to the next rest station in good shape. I take my last two GU packs and pray for a miracle at the next rest stop.
I pull into the next rest stop. I have pushed my body as hard as it has ever been pushed before. I eat every salty thing they have—pretzels, crackers, peanut butter, anything. I shotgun more Gatorade. I have about 20 miles to go. I look at my clock on the odometer and it is 3.20. I am not going to make the 4.30 cutoff.
I look around the rest stop. I realize there is a group of riders, just kind of sitting around, and it occurs to me that:
1) This is the first large conglomeration of people I have seen since "The Party"
2) They’re not being very active about refueling or even moving.
One guy is talking about how the SAG Wagons have already started picking people up at the back of the course, coming up behind us. He resigns himself to wait for the SAG wagon to meet him at the rest stop. Apparently, all of the others at the stop have a similar outlook.
I realize I will not make the cutoff.
I realize they will probably pick me up and put me in the van.
I realize it will be easier to just sit at this comfortable oasis of salty Heaven.
FUCK THIS! I came to ride.
I grab another cracker and get on my bike. I focus my mind on doing everything I can to go as deep into this ride as I possibly can. I am pedaling with incredible efficiency. I look down at the speedometer and I am cruising at 24 miles per hour on a slightly declined flat. I feel…good. The cramps return within 2 miles of leaving the rest stop. I take in more Gatorade, but I am hurting for sure. I don’t care. All I can think is about how far I can pedal. I am on rolling hills now, and I pick up three other guys. We work together, nobody talking. We are all focused.
The burning in my legs is like the branding irons of the Inquisition, expertly applied to the one part of my body critical to succeeding: my quadriceps. Still, I plough on. On one uphill, the pain becomes so intense my field of vision shrinks to a toilet-paper-roll-sized tunnel. Everything outside of that is pitch-black. The downhills offer a merciful reprieve.
I look up and see, inexplicably, the 90 mile aid station. I have covered 10 miles in about 40 minutes. Again, I grab anything salty I can, but I know my stomach is wickedly close to open revolt. I need to feed my legs, but I know my stomach will reject it if I stuff it in. I eat a couple of pretzels, grab more Gatorade and pedal out. I have 20 minutes to cover ten miles. Maybe, if I get close enough, I rationalize, they will let me finish.
I pull out, throw down the gears and roll. The pain returns very quickly, my legs not responding to the signals I am sending them. The last ten miles of the course are rolling hills, small by comparison, but at this late stage, and in my current shape, they are murderous. I pedal on. Over hills, around corners, down slight descents, trying to balance between conservation and momentum to make it up the other side with a minimum of pain.
I crest a hill…and I see it: the SAG wagon. A guy is holding his hands out for me to stop. I look at my odometer. It reads 95 miles.
“I’m sorry, we’re closing the course,” he says.
All I can think is that I won’t get to finish. “Please, I say. Can I just finish?”
He explains that they have to close the course, but they will take the people down to the finish line and drop us off about half a mile from the line. I will be able to finish the ride in front of my family. I’m sure everyone else will have departed, but I know TEAM FISH be there.
I get in the SAG and there are two other guys in there as well. We chat about the ride, the utter brutality of it. I tell them that I am celebrating one-year cancer-free, and they both talk about relatives, one man his wife, the other his father, who are survivors. We agree that we’ll be back again next year.
I talk with the SAG wagon people and it is then that I realize who they are. It is the same people who stopped to help us with my brother Pat’s FIRST flat tire. I look and they are wearing their “I Support TEAM FISH” BUTNZ. They both want to shake my hand, and I oblige. They drop us about half a mile from the finish. I call TEAM FISH and let them know I am on my way in as the SAG people unrack my bike.
My legs are okay now. As I sit on my bike, I settle in. I ride to the entrance to the college, and there are very few people still there. I wind through the maze to a cattle chute that will take me to the finish line. The adrenaline is flowing, there is no pain, only the joy of riding, of finishing. I hear Little Fish screaming “DADDY!!!!” and I see my family, in the t-shirts my wife made, erupt to my right. They are going crazy and I feel tears well up…only, there are no tears because I am so dehydrated. I raise my arms, a thank you to God for seeing me through all of this.
My brother has a cup of water and he launches it high in the air, allowing me to ride through it perfectly. It is so blessedly cold, and I use a little to wipe the salted crust from my face.
“NOW CROSSING THE LINE, NUMBER 468, ROBERT DUFFIELD. SURVIVOR!”
I cross the line and pull off to the side. I look back to where TEAM FISH has assembled, and I see Little Fish tearing across the field at top speed, screaming “DADDY! DADDY!” Her feet don’t even touch the ground. She flies into me and gives me a huge hug.
“I love you, Daddy!”
“I love you too, puppy.”
Mrs. Fish is the next to reach me, and I melt into her arms for a moment, allowing myself to finally soften. “I could not have done this without you. I love you,” I say. She just holds me.
Then TEAM FISH is mobbing me: My cousin LizFish, my brother (and fellow LiveSTRONG rider!!!) PatFish, my sister-in-law SaraLouWhoFish and my parents, NiniFish and Pop-Pop Fish.
I wasn’t sure what to feel after the event. Cheated that I missed the cutoff? Angry because I didn't plan properly and they didn’t have the GU I needed to survive this thing? Cursed because of all the flat tires? I took some time in quiet to think about everything, to put it into perspective. This is what I arrive at.
There are people who may think I didn’t finish the LiveSTRONG Challenge. I know better. Sure, I might owe Lance 4 miles (you'll get them next year, Lance) but I wanted to gain strength, to pass along that strength to others, and to show that cancer hasn’t and never will stop me. I gained it from people like Diane, who showed me what it is to have that desire in your belly. I passed it along to Melissa as she walked her bike up the hill, telling her she was going to be a great nurse (and cyclist!) because she believes in herself. And, I pedaled 96 miles over grueling climbs in a brutal heat with TEAM FISH by my side, hurting with every stroke but never, ever quitting until someone stopped me and peeled me off my bike. I was stopped, but I never quit.
I love TEAM FISH. You guys RULE! And next year, I’m going to bring more people, and we’re going to serve notice on cancer: Your days are numbered. Believe it.